Thrills and Chills: the Calder Quartet Play Bartok at the Met
The musicians of the Calder Quartet – violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violist Jonathan Moerschel and cellist Eric Byers – first joined forces to play the Bartok Fourth. Instant cred, or what? That quartet is emotionally harrowing, cruelly difficult, one of the most iconic in the entire string quartet canon, and the ensemble treated the crowd at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to a chilling, intense performance of it Friday night. The Calder Quartet are midway through their survey of the entire Bartok quartet cycle here; their next performance will be at the museum on Nov 22 at 7 PM, featuring Quartets Nos. 2 and 6 plus a selection of Iva Bittova works on which they’ll be joined by the edgy Czech violinst/composer herself.
The Quartet opened this concert with Quartet No. 3. It’s the shortest of Bartok’s quartets and maybe the most succinct, the group following its uneasy, moody atmospherics up to a lively danse macabre. In their program notes, they’d taken care to mention that both quartets on the bill reflect a war-torn early 20th century European milieu whose angst permeates them The group negotiated the composer’s thickets of glissandos, diabolical leaps and many dichotomies – easy, swinging rhythm versus harsh tonalities, alternately calm and jarring counterpoint and atmospheric/violent contrasts with a steadfastness that underscored Bartok’s impending sense of doom.
That horror came to the forefront with String Quartet No. 4. Agitation alternated with ominous stillness in the second and third movements, then the creepy, marionettish pizzicato in the fourth and finally another menacing dance out in the final fifth movement. It’s not clear who is the victor in the triumphantly evil conclusion, avenging allies or their enemy. Afterward, in maybe a deliberate attempt to deflect the awestruck intensity they’d created, the group backed the vocalist of an indie rock band, sending the energy in the opposite direction. It was a brave attempt at classical/indie cross-pollination; if that was successful in putting a few extra bodies in the seats for the thrills and chills of the Bartok, so much the better.
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