Karl Amadeus Hartmann - Bela Bartok - Zehetmair Quartett
This recording marks the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between violinist Thomas Zehetmair and ECM New Series. The label is pleased to introduce the Zehetmair Quartet, a group whose revelatory concert apperances have already generated a great deal of interest in the music world. Simultaneously with this release, ECM issues a second CD, "Verklarte Nacht" (ECM New Series 1714) in which the Camerata Bern, under the direction of Thomas Zehetmair plays music of Schoenberg, Veress and Bartok.
On its debut album, the Zehetmair Quartet plays string quartets by Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Bela Bartok. As Hermann Conen notes in the CD booklet, barely five years separate the two compositions. "Bela Bartok's Fourth String Quartet, dating from 1928, was still a postlude to the First World War, whereas Karl Amadeus Hartmann's First String Quartet (1933) was already a prelude to the Second. In the powerful maelstrom of this extraordinary period, 'during which peace mimicked war', both composers consciously chose the benchmark genre of the string quartet to convey their message."
Although neither Bartok nor Hartmann was to follow the austere paths toward atonality that the innovations of the Second Vienna School opened up, both composers were profoundly inspired by Alban Berg's Lyric Suite. Bartok first heard it in Baden-Baden in July 1927 and promptly set about penning a response. As with many of the great Hungarian composer's works of the period it also borrows melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas from the world of folk music, yet it is its sense of completeness, of being a world unto itself, that Bartok scholars have singled out as the composition's most outstanding attribute. It is often regarded as a "breakthrough" piece in his oeuvre. Gyorgy Kroo, for instance, wrote that "The String Quartet No. 4 represents that moment in Bartok's development as a composer when he first glimpses infinite horizons and in one sweeping glance perceives his own realm in its entirety. One can still feel the explosive quality of the stupendous force and tension which drove him to create this composition."
Inspiration for Hartmann's three-movement quartet, in turn, came from both Berg's Lyric Suite, and from Bartok's Fourth String Quartet. "But already the slow introduction of the first movement breaks out into independent territory..."
Hartmann wrote his composition in full knowledge that it would not be played in his native Germany for many years - his anti-fascist political stance guaranteed as much - but the work's dedicatee, Hermann Scherchen, helped to find contexts in which it could be heard. When the First String Quartet won First Prize at the 1936 Carillon Competition in Geneva, Hartmann's status as a genuinely "independent German composer" began to be recognised.
Both the Bartok and Hartmann pieces are strong, forcefully driven compositions that demand a fierce commitment from the players. Hermann Conen: "Producing great string quartets is always a challenge to both composers and interpreters. Often lifelong ties are forged and, with them, an authentic thread of tradition....The Zehetmair Quartet takes up this tradition in the very finest sense here. The intensity with which they approach the works is nowhere clearer than in the decision of the musicians assembled around first violinist Thomas Zehetmair to play by heart in concert and in the recording studio. One is almost tempted to add: by heart and with heart." What they propose is an "unhampered journey to the poetic 'heart of the matter'. This is the musicians' way of returning to the origin of their inspiration."
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The Challenge of the String Quartet - Bartok and Hartmann
Hardly five years lie between the two compositions brought together on the present recording, but the closeness of date is only an outward indication of their internal, musical proximity or more: of the aesthetic-ethical affinity between them. Yet there is something like an invisible historical paradigm shift dividing the composers and the works. Bela Bartok's Fourth String Quartet, dating from 1928, was written in the aftermath of the First World War, whereas Karl Amadeus Hartmann's First String Quartet (1933) was already a prelude to the Second. In the powerful maelstrom of this extraordinary period, "during which peace mimicked war", both composers consciously chose the benchmark genre of the string quartet to convey their message.
And here, the very choice of genre offers a first point of orientation. Seeking to understand the special status of the string quartet in the broad spectrum of musical genres, one quickly encounters a host of anthropomorphisms, senses the profound kinship between human being and instrument. These parallels already manifest themselves on the level of sound: resonating strings sing like tensed vocal cords; nothing so closely approaches the vast modulatory range of the human voice as the articulatory capacities of the bowed tone. But there is a more important aspect yet: the quartet has, since the Renaissance, embodied the four registers of the human voice, the epitome of textural perfection. As such, its homogeneous sound represents a microsocial sphere in which human beings can learn to coexist harmoniously. Thus, in the best case - namely, the rare masterpiece - the string sound is no less than the non-verbal reflection of a humane vision. And for both Bartok and Hartmann, it was the humane gesture in a social context that laid the foundations for their respective musical language.
But a further element was needed to transform an engaging 18th-century medium of entertainment - the divertimento for strings - into the modern string quartet, a genre destined to join the piano sonata and the symphony as a benchmark form of art music: the appeal to professionalism and craftsmanship. Experts and musiclovers remember: already Joseph Haydn's six Russian Quartets (op. 33, 1781), which formed the cornerstone of the genre, owed their existence to the provocation of northern German critics, who accused southern German composers of writing "trifling", meaning"bad" music. Published after a long period of preparation, Haydn's answer offered a "new, very special manner" of composing by expanding the thematic process to the whole movement and providing for a dialogue between four essentially equal voices. And it was Haydn's response that challenged Mozart to write his six quartets dedicated to "caro amico Haydn" in 1785.
A chain of inspiring provocations, unbroken to the present day, had been started. And yet the Olympian age of the quartet would already attain consummate heights with the third member of the great Viennese triumvirate. Certainly Beethoven's own contemporaries viewed the brilliant advances and professionalisation marking above all his late quartets (which Bartok and Hartmann venerated throughout their lives) as more overtaxing than challenging. So much so that his successors felt incapable of producing more than isolated contributions to the genre. The resulting retreat also constituted a return to the old intimacy of the genre and a sense of soul-searching in a small circle.
It took the challenge of life itself, of an era rife with unprecedentedly traumatic critical potential, for a new chain of inspiration to be set off and the genre to be led out of its introversion. The 1920s were a vaudeville stage on which Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists - and anyone else who felt compelled or called - acted the role of the barbarian before their bewildered contemporaries. This was probably a strategy of oneupmanship as a means of coming to grips with the caustic cynicism of the time. In the face of inflationary proclamations celebrating the "end of art", remarkable composers appeared, as if by tacit understanding, to reweave the dangerously fragile thread of the art-music tradition in a new way: using tougher, more resilient material.
Neither Bartok nor Hartmann pursued the path into the rarefied realm of constructivism, the path to the abolition of tonality via twelve-tone techniques so emphatically taken by the Second Viennese School. And yet it was a quartet produced by this school that gave them their impetus: the new benchmark was Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, written in 1926 and premiered in Vienna in 1927. Its musical idiom, clothed in twelve-tone language, pushed the boundaries of gentleness and disillusioned harshness to hitherto unknown extremes. Schoenberg reacted immediately, in 1927, with his highly constructivist Third Quartet.
Bela Bartok (1881 -1945) heard the Lyric Suite at a concert in Baden-Baden in July 1927, at which he played his own (and only) Piano Sonata of 1926. So profound was the impression of Berg's piece that - although Bartok had not written a quartet since his Second Quartet in 1917 - he responded with not one but two works. Less than two months after the Baden-Baden concert, his quasi one-movement Third String Quartet was completed. But the impulse remained strong, and in September 1928 he followed it with the Fourth Quartet. Both new works were premiered in Budapest by the Waldbauer Quartet on 20 March 1929.
Employing the terse language of a craftsman, Bartok described the overall design of the work in the foreword to the score: "The slow movement is the nucleus of the piece, the other movements are, as it were, bedded around it: the fourth movement is a free variation of the second one, and the first and fifth movement are of the identical thematic material. Metaphorically speaking, the third movement is the kernel, movements I and V the outer shell, and movements II and IV, as it were, the inner shell." So in this symmetrical design radiating outward from a centre (Bartok himself called it an "arch shape"), the central Adagio, or "kernel", is surrounded by four fast movements.
The music plunges into the opening Allegro in a mood of urgent intensity, and after only a few bars the focus becomes clear: the semitone interval as an all-pervasive motivic basis, with uncompromising linearity and polyphony to allow it to achieve full scope. At the end of its third permutation, an abrasively chromatic, ascending and descending 6-note motif (B - C - D-flat - C - B - B-flat) appears almost desultorily in the cello. This unassuming formula, packed into the narrowest possible tonal space, contains the germ of the wealth of thematic configurations presented in the roughly sonata-form movement. The narrow range of the motif is in keeping with the dense harmonies, where chords are occasionally compressed into harsh clusters.
Bartok's genius reveals itself in the ability to explore the microcosm of these six notes using very old (contrapuntal) and very new and revolutionary techniques, and to connect the two with the help of his incomparably developed rhythms. The motif is continually transformed, inverted, spun out, equipped with new "openings", multiplied by fugati, canonical passages, imitations and stretto writing. But there is also an expansiveness that lets it breathe: all of the thematic configurations in this movement result from the motif being projected onto larger intervallic spaces and cast in new rhythms. This is the start of a brand new way of composing similar musical ideas. The idee fixe of the movement appears at every structural turning point and finally dominates the coda. The pay-off does not come until (the very last note of the movement: with an emphatic final gesture (pesante), the densely chromatic motif descends a further crucial semitone; transformed, it suddenly becomes tonal and diatonic (D-E-flat-F-E-flat-D-flat-C).
Played with mutes, very rapidly (prestissimo) and, over long stretches, very softly (pianissimo), the second movement races forward, a virtuoso apparition at whirlwind speed. As many a sculptor has been known to concentrate attention on the folds of a robe rather than the head of a sculpture, so Bartok throws the apparently indifferent background, a highly artificial interplay of chromatic lines and figures, into sharp relief. Isolated, densely chromatic motifs emerge phantom-like from it and then, with soaring glissandi, vanish as quickly as they came. It is music ceaselessly questing for - and unable to find - itself. And ultimately it blots itself out, fading from the approximate into nothingness.
As if it were a pearl to be protected by the double shell of the oyster, Bartok positions the only slow movement - an Adagio, marked "non troppo lento" - in the middle of the work. Like a curtain slowly descending from above, softly shimmering chords create a backdrop of sound against which the earthy tone of the cello can finally sing its heart out. After the coldly developed structures of the previous movements, time stands still; the moment for pure expression has come. Once the rhapsodic song of the cello has liberated itself from the narrowness of the semitone, the melody is taken up by the first and then by the second violin. When the viola comes in and begins its dialogue with the second violin, the spell of the monologue is broken and the players' communicative circle closes. In the subsequent two duets - between second violin and viola, and first violin and cello - Bartok has the two voices imitate and mirror one another, then grants them a brief moment of exuberant dance, until, in a short coda, the first violin signals the return to the insistent gesture of the previous solos.
In its unflagging energy, the fourth movement, which is plucked not bowed (Allegretto pizzicato), recalls its counterpart, the second movement. But now the agitated chromaticism of the second movement is transformed into an - even today - intriguingly exotic tonal world informed by the jagged melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas of folk music. Used here for the first time, the "Bartok pizzicato" - produced by letting the strings rebound off the fingerboard - is the composer's most apparent additional means of heightening the barbaric quality of this robust scherzo.
The music plunges into the finale as it did into the opening movement: lashing chords, sounding almost out of tune, return ritornello-like to provide the rapidly pulsating momentum for the three-part fifth movement (Allegro molto) - an "Allegro barbaro" for string quartet (Janos Karpati). With this skilfully stylised peasant dance, which radiates a wild lust for life, Bartok self-confidently brings the mirror symmetry of the Fourth Quartet to a close. The "arabesque" secondary motif of the first movement now becomes the focal point: to the accompaniment of a pounding, rhythmically asymmetrical ostinato, the theme is presented and then immediately subjected to such purposeful variation that, towards the end of the first part, similarities to the "germ motif" of the first movement begin to emerge. After the (only) general pause, a folk tune from the end of the second theme receives the same treatment. The third part, a free reprise, commences with the recurrence of the"arabesque"figure, which is more and more frequently interrupted by incendiary bursts of triple and quadruple stopping. Shortly before the end, the idee fixe and its mirror image appear in all the instruments, and in a furious stretto, Bartok demonstrates how closely related the thematic material is. Completing the arch-like architecture, the quartet concludes with an almost exact reiteration of the final passage of the first movement.
Although most of the generous thoughts in Theodor W. Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music are reserved for Schoenberg, one of the few that is not is devoted to the great Hungarian. Concurring with Rene Leibowitz, Adorno called Bartok a composer who, "in certain respects, strove to reconcile Schoenberg and Stravinsky".1 But Bartok's integrative spirit, his ability to produce new syntheses, went much further. His feeling, so he wrote two years before his death, had told him that, "in its total intactness, peasant music"- which, as one of the pioneers of ethno-musicological field research, he had begun exploring in 1906 - "possessed a perfection and beauty equalled only by the finest works of the classical composers". In sharp contrast to the realities of his time, it was Bartok's express goal to forge a synthesis between the tradition of classical European art music and the sources of authentic folk music as it had survived above all in Eastern Europe. This determination to achieve a musical synthesis between East and West attained its most perfect form in his six string quartets.
Opus numbers alone reveal how strongly Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) had internalised the challenge of the string quartet. Preparing a work-list for his Kleine Schriften (1965) shortly before his death, he removed a number of early pieces and declared the First String Quartet his Opus 1. Hartmann had studied with Joseph Haas at the Akademie fur Tonkunst in his native city of Munich from 1925 to 1929. He knew what it took to join the illustrious guild, and would throughout his life study the great string quartet tradition, particularly as Beethoven had handled it, expressionistically exploding the sonata form.
Hartmann's First Quartet was also the first work that he knew from the start would have no chance of being performed in Germany for some time to come. Long before the Nazis took power in January 1933, the enfant terrible of Munich's musical scene recognised that the era of stylistic randomness was over. In a rein of terror, stylistic pluralism - which he had exercised to the hilt and would practise again after the war as founder and director of the musica viva concerts - ceased to be authentic.
Hartmann had soaked up the artistic developments of the hothouse Twenties - which were also his own twenties - like a sponge. As he later wrote, "I nonchalantly amalgamated Futurism, Dada, jazz and other things in a series of compositions. ... It was only thanks to Hermann Scherchen that I discovered where I and my compositions were trying to go."3 And so it was only logical that Hartmann should dedicate his First Quartet to the period's most influential conductor of New Music, who was also the composer's mentor and spiritus rector. Scherchen (1891-1966) enabled Hartmann to survive as an artist, helping the still fledgling composer to build an artistic existence outside his own country. In 1936 Hartmann entered the score of the quartet, written in 1933, in the composition competition of the Carillon chamber music society in Geneva. He was awarded first prize by a jury which included such luminaries as Malipiero, Roussel and Ansermet, and saw his work premiered by the Vegh Quartet. Everything pointed to the start of an international career, and indeed, being considered an "independent German", the anti-fascist Hartmann was often played outside Germany.
Inspiration for Hartmann's three-movement quartet came from Berg's Lyric Suite, and even more from Bartok's Fourth String Quartet. But already the slow introduction of the first movement breaks out into independent territory. The solo viola1 starts slowly and singingly: the soft, mournful opening melody, in clear f-minor, breathes and sighs like a mellifluous psalm. Portamenti prefigure the numerous glissandi that will link the melodic lines. Each instrument enters with a literal reiteration of the lament in a different key, until the quartet is complete: an Adagio moment before the actual Adagio.
Suddenly an eruptive gesture sets the movement going, and it proceeds, in fact storms, forward to the end with practically no respite. The forceful motif is unmistakably reminiscent of Bartok's "germ motif", although only the skeleton is quoted. As the movement oscillates between elements of sonata and rondo form, Hartmann's contrapuntal mastery is revealed, above all in the fugati; the driving rhythm makes commanding use of all the techniques available at the time. Springy ostinati accompany the introduction of the dance-like principal subject, which disappears after two varied repetitions and only returns shortly before the end. The rich string sound already anticipates the prospective symphonist's First Symphony (1937): with homophonic sections interspersed among the contrapuntal passages, a tension is generated that Hartmann himself described as the tension between emotion and calculation. In his own view, a substantial part of his work always consisted in "reconciling the two inimical elements and creating a balance in which neither triumphs over the other".4 The meandering form washes pentatonic motifs - a Jewish folk tune, a stylistic allusion to Bartok - to the surface. When the"germ motif"- now quoted almost literally - reappears in musical space, it marks the conclusion of a fascinatingly compact movement.
Going even further than Bartok, Hartmann conceals the Adagio character of the second movement behind the terse technical instruction "Eighth note = 66, con sordino". After only a few bars, the violins and viola sound a sustained chord beneath which the cello insistently spins an invocatory, ever more expansive cantilena. Hartmann, too, develops it from the brusque descending semitone, yet there is never any question of this being an abstract interval; it is an expressive primeval interval, the utterance of a universal musical lament. Given the homogeneity of the string quartet sound, Hartmann's earlier stylistic pluralism no longer has strong colour contrasts to rely on and has filtered down to the subcutaneous level. But the individual instruments bring it back into the light: the cello's dramatic, virtuoso "scene" is followed by a little folk dance in the second violin; and the first violin joins in when the cello melody is repeated in abbreviated form at the end. Each of these gestural episodes is interrupted by passages of purest homophony in all four instruments. As if to make sure they were capable of moving in step, the instruments twice proceed through musical space in locked parallel chords (the same rhythmic and intervallic treatment in all four voices), as if through a purifying bath. As densely expressive as it is, the movement is clearly structured as a slightly asymmetrical arch: the nine formal elements unfold towards the centre and then occur in reverse order until they are back at the beginning. With this ghost of an "optimistic" ending, the central movement of the quartet closes.
The dance-like third movement, which once again bears only metronome markings (quarter note = 120), is an Allegro in character and tempo and would best be described as a Rondo in form. It takes the stylistic contrasts formulated in the previous movements a step further, sharpening and intensifying them. Contemporary influences and folk-music sources are now joined by allusions to the history of art music. After the galvanising introductory refrain, the reference to the contrapuntal style, which follows without transition, initially strikes the listener as an isolated cultural signal. But from there on, the two stylistic levels - the ancient art of polyphony and the dance-like passages - mark the poles between which the movement energetically oscillates. Abrupt cuts and gradual transformations generate a compelling intensity and depth truly worthy of a finale. This is the climax of the homage to Bartok, for here Hartmann surpasses his model.
- Hermann Conen