Talking Bartók

Philip Kennicott finds that Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s quartets evoke “the enlightenment of a restless mind finding something definite and tangible in its search for certitude”:

[C]ompare the Bartók quartets to the 15 quartets of Shostakovich, and one hears an almost desperately single minded consistency in the former. Shostakovich’s cycle is deeply personal, and often imbued with a profound sense of fear; Bartók’s is strangely depersonalized, and more focused on anxiety. Although fear can be based on a false sense of danger, anxiety is a more ungrounded emotion, free floating, detached from immediate causes or explanations. While fear can be dispelled, anxiety is ever present, lifting on occasion but always settling back in. Even at its most calm and reflective, as in the lento movement of the Fourth Quartet, one never senses any slackening of Bartók’s obsessional need to keep control of the music. His relation to his musical materials is like our relation to the world: One must keep a grip, and keep moving.

So the music is always anxious, always driving forward, which is both exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps that’s why Bartók’s endings—ironically anticlimactic, humorously flippant, pompously emphatic—are so appealing. By the time Bartók ends something, no honest listener could claim to want to hear more. The idea, the gesture, the mood has been wrung out, used up, finished off. And then it’s on to the next thing, with renewed energy and relentlessness.

(Video: the Pacifica Quartet performs “Allegro pizzicato” from Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4)