Lifetime of a Sorrowing Giant

In three concerts over eight days, the excellent Penderecki String Quartet — visitors from Canada despite their chosen namesake — re-created the life span of one of the past century’s giants: Béla Bartók, through his six quartets. Though he never acknowledged them as such, these remarkable works stand forth as the autobiography of his most productive years. With remarkable sureness of musical resource from the outset, they begin a tale of an eager, observant young man, surrounded by the infinite variety of the musical world circa 1908 and willing to absorb some of everything. They carry the line forward three decades to a man of deep sadness and physical pain, as shadows close in around that world. Is there a more profound leave-taking in all music than the descent into darkness by the solo cello at the end of the last of these quartets?

As with Beethoven — some of whose chamber music formed a fitting companion to Bartók’s on these concerts — the quartets come closest to the composer himself, of all his works, in tracing his musical states of mind. The First does indeed move rather easily through European musical society. Ravel drops in, perhaps also Debussy; the shadow of late German Romanticism — Reger, say, or the young Schoenberg — looms not far off. The lyricism is rich and attractive, but there is little to hint at the extraordinary inventions of the later works — the stomping, jagged rhythms that intrude upon the serene landscape in the Second, the concision of power in the Third until you think the work is about to explode inside you, the nocturnal spooks that sweep across the Fourth like shadows from another planet. There are outcries in these works that perhaps tell us more about Bartók himself than we ought to know; my one encounter with him — backstage, at the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra — left me with a memory of eyes of penetrating sorrow that, 60 years later, I would not erase if I could.

There are good recordings of these quartets — the Emerson, the Takács, the old Juilliard (which was the first and which blew everybody’s mind on LP around 1950) — yet the experience of hearing them surrounded by air, even in the lousy acoustics of LACMA’s Bing Theater, greatly enhanced the element of closeness to their composer that makes these works unique. Filling out the programs with late Beethoven was also exactly right: the Quartets Opp. 130 and 135, and they, too, were superbly played. Opus 130, however, presented the usual problem. Beethoven’s original plan was to follow the supremely beautiful Cavatina — a slow thread of endless melody best heard, as it surely was imagined, in a single breath — with a final fugue of staggering difficulty. From an emotional point of view, that would have been the proper balance. Beethoven, however, let himself be persuaded — probably by the ancestors of today’s “good music” radio programmers — to let up on his audiences, and so he plugged in a much lighter dingbat of a finale that really betrays everything that has come before, and published the Great Fugue separately. At LACMA, the Penderecki played Opus 130 Lite before Bartók No. 3, and the Great Fugue alone before Bartók No. 5. If I had been running the show, I’d have done the Great Fugue twice and dumped the dingbat altogether.


While Bartók was fashioning string quartets in Hungary, Carlos Chávez was throwing notes against a piece of paper in his native Mexico and calling it his Third Piano Sonata. Susan Svrcek’s Piano Spheres concert at Zipper Hall last week — the final event in this season’s series — included this work, and while I have heard some fairly aimless music in my time, this 1928 concoction in four movements took a kind of new prize for something that came out of nowhere, ended nowhere, and went nowhere in between. The program also included an interesting group of homages to Chopin by Chávez, Villa-Lobos and Schumann, some juvenile fluff by local composer Andrew Norman, and, at the end, a real knockout piece, Villa-Lobos’ Rudepoêma.

That work’s dates are 1921–26, and I can see where it would take that long just to get all the notes written down. Villa-Lobos was in Paris during most of that time, not his native Brazil, so this isn’t one of his nicely cultivated Bachianas pieces. Its sources are more primitive, the new passions for African chants and dances, drums and shouts — all boiled down to a virtuoso piano style that sounds like three performances of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz played simultaneously. It goes on and on, nearly half an hour’s worth of tail chasing and padding of various sorts, but it’s a damned exciting piece, and Susan Svrcek did indeed play the living hell out of it — without ever letting on why anyone would want to. The work was dedicated to Artur Rubinstein (before he became “Arthur”), and he wrestled with it early on. In later years, the only Villa-Lobos he ever played were the pretty little pieces about dolls and gardens.

The most beautiful performance I have heard in recent weeks — or months, or perhaps even years — was none of the above, however. It happened last week at Royce Hall, when the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe before a sold-out, cheering crowd, as if Callas and Caruso had suddenly come to town. Margaret Batjer and Allan Vogel, LACO’s first-desk players, were the soloists; Helmuth Rilling was the conductor of this all-Bach program that also included three cantatas with fine soloists and a cut-down contingent from the Master Chorale. The singing was okay, and the cantatas themselves were out of Bach’s top drawer, but it was that concerto and the joyous, deep conversation among the two instrumental soloists and the wonderful small orchestra that put the whole evening up on the topmost top shelf.

Can you remember the first time you heard that concerto? I can; it was at the Liberty Music Shop in Manhattan, in the days when small groups of music lovers gathered as new shipments of 78-rpm discs from abroad were tenderly unpacked and tenderly placed on the record player. There was a recording from Denmark, of a Bach concerto nobody had ever heard, with performers whose names nobody could pronounce. After the slow movement, with that sublime melody passed back and forth between soloists, with the orchestra simply strumming its approval, we all stood there in silence, with our jaws dropped. That was the kind of performance I heard again last week.

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