The Avalon String Quartet completed their traversal of the 6 Bartok string quartets on Sunday afternoon. I missed 2 of the programs, but managed to hear 4 out of 6, and was very pleased with the depth of the performances. I first learned these works from recordings by the Julliard Quartet, and then heard them live with the Vermeer Quartet, and I have never forgotten those versions, even as other recordings and performances passed my way. The Avalon players were very much the equal of those.
Bartok’s last quartet is a fitting end to his output in the medium. Having explored formal plans of one movement, two movements, three movements, and two quartets with five movements, his final quartet is in some ways the most traditional, with four movements, the first in sonata form. Yet Bartok manages to link the work together with a recurring melody, marked “Sadly.” This theme forms an introduction to the first three movements, and then unfolds as the final slow movement. I was struck, at this hearing, of odd parallels between this quartet and Berg’s Lyric Suite. Some of this may have been from a formal plan that gets gradually slower, or the rather emotionally desolate mood at the end of both works. Or maybe it was the bitter sense of humor evidenced other places. All told, the Bartok 6th Quartet is an emotionally rich and vivid musical experience, and was played brilliantly here.
Also on the program was Prokofiev’s 2nd String Quartet. I’ve always been more fond of Prokofiev’s 1st Quartet, but the Avalon players made a strong case for this quirky work, bringing an especially convincing account of the last movement, so that the piece appeared to deepen in emotional content as it proceeded. It makes me want to go back and listen to the work more, and see if I’ve been missing that depth, or if it was just the commitment of this particular performance that made me feel that way.
I’ll look forward to what the Avalon Quartet has in store in the coming year (they’ve renewed their contract with the Art Institute for 2014-15). Please let it be something other than another Beethoven survey…