by Robert Leeper
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito, The New York Times
After the Calder Quartet's last show at the Met, which was clean but lacked a certain edge, they regrouped and came back last Friday with a fury. Bartók's Third and Fourth quartets preceded a collaboration with David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors fame, who sang DP songs as well as a new work for voice and string quartet.
For all intents and purposes, Bartók's Third Quartet could be reduced to a single omnipresent motive; of his six quartets, it is the most focused on thematic material, structure, and development. Melodic shapes and intervallic relations are given fugal treatment, while canons are stretched and shrunk to produce themes that develop freely. The four movements are played without pause, and the Calder quartet gave it its due, making sure every note was crystalline and precise while throwing in a little flair. Despite the torture Bartók puts that little three-note motive through, the quartet was able to continuously bring the kernel out just enough so that you could recognize it before it morphed into some other variation.
In quieter sections the Calder slid slyly up and down their instruments, reveling in every rich, pungent chord Bartók presented. But, they were just as happy to saw away on bass double stops, leaving the exotic rhythms to come to the fore.
The Fourth Quartet was given an equally tight reading, putting every savage stroke and strange tremolo and glissando in its place. Especially haunting was the third movement in the composer's "night music" style: it sounded as if the soft harmonies were whispering of the occult in your ear.
Longstreth's unrefined voice seemed like it would be a perfect vocal match for Bartók's quartets, but his slightly unpredictable delivery and simple melodies seemed a bitter pill after the dense polyphony of the Bartók masterpieces and the laser precision of the Calder Quartet. His relaxed guitar and vocals solos on songs like Dirty Projectors' "This Weather" seemed to glide beautifully at points, but more often than not the glide seemed more an inability to hit the notes he really wanted than anything intentional.
The next and final performance in the Met's Bartók Quartet cycle is Nov. 22 at 7:00 p.m., featuring the Czech violinist, singer, and composer Iva Bittová. Tickets and information available on the Met's website.