Last night, Tuesday, April 10, I saw a chamber music concert by the Artemis Quartet at Carnegie Hall which consisted of Beethoven’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3; Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17; and Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1.
I had great seats. The Artemis Quartet played splendidly. Sitting at the front of the concert hall, I could really appreciate their musicianship.
The most engrossing piece (they were all splendid) — the one that by itself seemed to make the concert (it seemed as if others in the audience felt the same way) — was the Bartók.
It is my opinion that Bartók has one rival, and none other, for the designation of best composer of the twentieth century: Shostakovich.
You know when you hear the second Bartók quartet (and the five others composed by him) that you are hearing something different than anything composed before. It is such fresh, intriguing music, yet it’s not avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. It is beautiful, haunting, arresting. And totally convincing — the quartets as compositions, that is.
It seems so fresh and new, made of sounds and harmonies one has never heard before. Yet, somehow the musical idiom seems as if it has been time tested and proved in a “musical furnace.” A key may be that the daring harmonies and rhythms are based on a substratum of folk music known to Bartók and used by him. Brilliantly used, and fused with a modern idiom. It’s music that is both old, or traditional, and yet entirely new. A hundred or so years after its composition, it sounds entirely fresh.
I thought of Stravinsky, the first among equals, the pacesetter, of the avant-garde composers of the early 20th century. He broke new ground with daring rhythms and orchestration and new sounds. But I feel that Bartók’s music has much more staying power. His quartets alone, which are surpassed by what other composer’s? (Beethoven and perhaps Shostakovich; but I think Bartók’s quartets outrank even Shostakovich’s), are proof positive of this.
— Roger W. Smith
April 11, 2018