This weekend, the Takacs Quartet plays all six of Bartok’s string quartets over two concerts through Cal Performances. It’s a rare opportunity to hear the works played as a complete set. Jeremy Geffen, Executive and Artistic Director of Cal Performances, says that you can hear the 30-year evolution of Bartok as a composer as he returned to the genre throughout his career.
There’s more information about the concerts at the Cal Performances website.
“In those particular pieces,” Geffen says, “you start with a quartet that is very much modeled on the Beethoven c-sharp minor quartet.” As a younger man, Bartok wrote it in response to unrequited love, dedicating it to Stefi Geyer. “Not dedicated in the most flattering way, to a violinist that Bartok was deeply in love with, and who spurned him, and he wrote his first violin concerto for her. Things didn’t turn out well. He wrote another piece about her that is really not very flattering, and we have this string quartet, which is also a portrait of a human being.” It would be three decades before he’d write his last work for this instrumentation. “By the end of the cycle, you have the sixth quartet, when the world was at war. He was about to leave the continent he had called home for the entirety of his life, and he’s in a very dark and pessimistic mood. The sixth quartet is extremely compelling, but it’s a very bleak portrait of humanity. And in between, you have these incredible moments where he fuses folk music with his modernist ear in such a way that you don’t even necessarily recognize the folk music as folk music. It’s been so internalized.” Although they don’t get programmed as frequently as those of other composers, the Bartok quartets, Geffen says, rank with the best of them. “This cycle of quartets stands alongside the Beethoven quartets, Shostakovich quartets, even the Haydn quartets as the greatest body of music written for those four instruments. And we get to hear it by the Takacs Quartet, who have been playing this repertoire for as long as they’ve been in existence.”