Bartók Marathon All In Day’s Work For Borromeo

Borromeo String Quartet play Bartok marathon in Toronto. (James English)
The Borromeo String Quartet includes (from left) Nicholas Kitchen, Mai Motobuchi, Yeesun Kim and Kristopher Tong.
(Concert photo by James English)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — Musical cycles are special events. The focus on a composer’s complete oeuvre in a particular genre – such as the symphony or the piano sonata – is an honor reserved for those who have created a body of work that is both excellent and substantial. The performance of such a cycle also has the potential to be a significant achievement for the musicians. But perhaps the best reason to present a cycle is the insights that the format can offer listeners, showcasing both the breadth and the depth of a composer’s musical ideas. If the cycle is presented in chronological order (as they often are), the composer’s musical evolution is highlighted. And if the cycle is performed as a marathon – with years of musical creation condensed into a single sitting – the experience can be especially illuminating.

The Borromeo played (Eli Akerstein)
Borromeo: More than a decade of Bartok cycles. (Eli Akerstein)

This is what the Borromeo String Quartet did at the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall, on Thursday, August 6, in a program consisting of all six of Béla Bartók’s string quartets, composed between 1909 and 1939.

The concert was presented by Toronto Summer Music. Founded ten years ago by conductor Agnes Grossmann to address the lack of classical music in Toronto’s summer months, the annual festival is now run by violist Douglas McNabney. Compared with some of Canada’s larger music festivals, the event is modest in scale: this year, Toronto Summer Music presented just fourteen “serious” concerts, plus some lighter fare. But through consistently high standards, the festival has earned the respect and gratitude of local music fans.

Thursday’s concert certainly wasn’t the first time the Borromeo has played all six Bartók quartets on one program. They’ve been presenting complete Bartók cycles for more than a decade, and their ingrained knowledge of these works could be heard in their polished performances. (The Borromeo’s next Bartók marathons will take place at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 18th and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on Dec. 20th.) Interestingly, the quartet played from full scores, reading from laptops mounted on their music stands.

In such experienced hands, vivid colors and rich detail animated every movement. When they wanted to, the Borromeo played with a light touch, bringing a furtive, skittish energy to the Second Quartet’s “Allegro molto capriccioso” movement or the Fourth Quartet’s “Allegro pizzicato.” At other times, there was a manic frenzy in their playing, as in the “Prestissimo, con sordino”movement of the Fourth Quartet or the “Allegro” of the Fifth. By contrast, an obscure mystery permeated the Fourth Quartet’s “Non troppo lento,” and there was pathos in the “Adagio molto”movement of the Fifth Quartet. In keeping with Bartók’s folk-music influences, the quartet played with robust energy whenever a Mittel-European hoe-down burst from the page.

Composer Bartok
Bartok composed his six quartets between 1909 and 1939.

Throughout the cycle, the Borromeo maintained a keen sense of balance. I’m not just talking about balance in volume, so that one instrument doesn’t drown out another, but also a balance of ideas: a carefully worked-out weighing of the independent and the interdependent aspects of the music. Each player’s part was intricately woven into a shifting foreground-background continuum in ways that clarified Bartók’s, and also the performers’, structural intentions. This isn’t music that plays itself. Everything has to be worked out, and the Borromeo has done its homework.

As well, hearing all six quartets in chronological order underscored Bartók’s stylistic development. The earlier quartets are rooted in romanticism, even as they struggle against it. But gradually, a personally idiomatic modernism emerges that’s sparse in texture and marked by stark contrasts and ever-increasing dissonance.

For all these reasons, it was an impressive concert, abundant and exhilarating. Yet at the same time, I was left wondering if the Bartók quartets are best served by the marathon treatment. This is dense, complex, and often “difficult” music, demanding stamina not just from performers but also from listeners. Such an intensely Bartókian experience isn’t for everyone, and what started as a near-capacity audience was noticeably thinner by the evening’s end. However, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and listeners who remained to the end of the Sixth Quartet responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Few composers intend for their music to be heard in the marathon format, and Bartók is no exception.  Still, anyone who is seriously interested in Bartók’s music could gain much from hearing a marathon cycle of his quartets at least once in his or her life. And the Borromeo Quartet does it very well.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications.