At the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the Diotima Quartet took up a challenge which is some kind of an achievement: play all 6 quartets written by Bartók in the same evening!
It is common to play these very demanding works over 2 or even 3 evenings, when played along with another composer, allowing to alternate (the Alban Berg Quartet had chosen Mozart at the TCE some years ago).
If memory serves, my first live meeting with the Diotima Quartet, who for years specialized in contemporary music, goes back to a decade ago with a memorable rendition of George Crumb’s Black Angels at the Opéra Comique. More recently, I remember discovering a very enjoyable work, Silent Flowers by Toshio Hosokawa.
The Diotima Quartet succeeded in taking up the challenge and gave high quality renditions of the 6 masterpieces. Playing them in chronological order allowed witnessing the evolution of the Hungarian composer, especially from the 1st to the 3rd or 4th quartet.
A 1st Quartet that some describe as post-romantic, and that in any case has reminiscences of Beethoven (particularly his 14th Quartet) and some similarities with Schoenberg before he turned to dodecaphony.
Then was a splendid performance of the 2nd Quartet, that made me finally enjoy every note and understand things I had not got so far. The final slow movement, Lento, was absolutely breathtaking.
After a 1st pause, the Diotimas offered their reading of the 3rd Quartet, the most concise of the 6, and the closest to the second school of Vienna. The one, along with #2, which had appealed to me less, before a revealing and astounding version by the Keller Quartet during a concert in the 90s – at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique I believe.
This was followed by a remarkable interpretation of the 4th Quartet, with its arch form and its amazing sound effects.
2nd pause, and to number 5, which also has an arch structure, and was perfectly thought out and played.
The concert ended with the 6th Quartet, and its Mesto (sad) which devours bit by bit the whole musical space. A minor mistake will not deny myself the happiness to listen to this work I studied with my teacher, M. Olivier Corbiot. This sad and dark piece, which is Bartók’s farewell to both his mother and his country, before the exile as a protest against Nazism before it pushed Europe and the whole world in the most absolute horror.
Bartók had plans for a 7th quartet which will unfortunately not see the light of day, as the composer died in exile only aged 64.