Bartok’s austerity finally finds its audience

Apr 10, 2007 at 5:53 pm

Cavani String Quartet: Photo by Christian Steiner    The Cavani String Quartet comes to UofL’s Comstock Hall on Sunday, April 15.
Cavani String Quartet: Photo by Christian Steiner The Cavani String Quartet comes to UofL’s Comstock Hall on Sunday, April 15.
The Cavani String Quartet concludes the 2006-07 Chamber Music Society season with a concert Sunday at Comstock Hall featuring works by three composers from three very different centuries. Bookending the program are Ludwig van Beethoven, the classical master of the 19th century, and Joan Tower, the popular composer of the present 21st century. In between is Bela Bartok.

In his time (1881-1945), Bartok was far more famous with musical thinkers than paying audiences. His orchestral music fought for attention with the classical composers of old, and lost. He was “out there” on the edge of 20th century music — dissonant and hard to listen to. Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky came to see Bartok on his death bed in New York City and commissioned him to write two more pieces, which he penned in a frail musical shorthand, with his son Peter filling in the notes on the scores. But few others beyond Koussevitzky noticed Bartok’s passing. He came, he wrote and he died — in abject poverty.

Times have changed. Today’s audiences have “found” chamber music, and found Bela Bartok. Rather than the lush orchestrations of full symphonic works, listeners are interested in the austerity of just four voices in a string quartet.

And Bartok is certainly austere.

First of all, he was Hungarian, singing the minor-key notes of the agrarian life of Central European peasants. Bartok traveled to remote villages and hamlets in Hungary and Slovakia recording on paper, and by phonograph, more than 6,000 folk songs.

But — and this is just the notion of this writer — Bartok is also 20th century industrial, hearing beneath the orderly hum, the sounds of humans caught on the sharp edges of their machines, gears scraping iron against iron.

Overall, critics describe Bartok as a nationalistic composer, filled with the desire to write in the melodic and harmonic forms he found in the Hungarian countryside. His music, they say, is harsh, desolate and barbaric. Which audiences are now interested to hear, years after his death.

The Cavani String Quartet has enjoyed a long legacy of excellence, dating to its formation in Cleveland in 1984. The group is associated with the Cleveland Institute of Music and prides itself on innovative educational ventures with such prominent musical venues as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and Interlochen. Among its many recordings is a celebrated interpretation of the six Bartok quartets. They sound like the right players for this job.