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Compelling Readings

Bartók's String Quartets in Ottawa,
enjoyed by BERT BAILEY


The 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was recently commemorated through a variety of cultural events. In Canada's capital, this involved performances of several works by Béla Bartók, including all of his string quartets.

These six quartets rank among the 20th century's most extraordinary and beautiful chamber music, arguably on a par with Beethoven's late masterpieces in the genre and Bach's solo Cello Suites. As such, collectively they stand among man's greatest achievements in art music.

Bartók composed in this medium right through his musical career: two juvenile string quartets were apparently lost, and he had plans for a seventh at the time of his death. All six quartets are complex, challenging works, and seldom performed -- certainly they are rarely performed together. All the more incentive to seize the Orion String Quartet's traversal over two rainy mid-October nights (16 and 17 October 2006) at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church, a massive, gothic-inspired hall with fine acoustics.

The Orion's recital began with great promise. An outstanding performance of the 1908 First Quartet launched their first evening, although it began so slowly as to suggest an overly refined or reverent approach. The way it unfolded, however, and as both nights' recitals showed, it was clear that these players are prone to nothing of the kind. The music's occasional aggressiveness was, in fact, well in hand, and the Orion's members also proved well equipped to brave the quartets' many intonation, harmonic and ensemble challenges.

The uncommonly drawn-out opening to the First illustrated what became clear on both evenings: namely, that these quartets can accommodate a wide diversity of readings, calling on worthy ensembles to plumb Bartók's rich material for their particular take on its musical magic. This the Orion Quartet achieved time and again, casting unexpected light on a variety of passages that lesser ensembles might play through without remark.

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Copyright © 28 November 2006 Bert Bailey, Ottawa, Canada


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