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Bartók: String Quartet No. 2, op. 17

The String Quartet No. 2, begun in 1915 and completed two years later, is one of Béla Bartók’s breakthrough works. His earliest compositions—beautiful in their own right—reflect how much the composer had absorbed from the music of Richard Strauss. Debussy was his next great influence, as evident in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1907–08), the String Quartet No. 1 (1909), Two Pictures (1910), and Bluebeard’s Castle (1911). After Bluebeard, Bartók, for the most part, put composing on hold and instead spent a few years collecting folk music.

When he returned with The Wooden Prince, the Piano Suite, and the Quartet No. 2, the composer as we know and hear him now was essentially formed.
Bartók’s Quartet No. 2 was premiered on March 3, 1918, by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, to whom it is dedicated. Although his quartets were rarely programmed (except at contemporary-music festivals), the Quartet No. 2 received notable support by two recordings: one from 1925, with the Amar Quartet, whose violist was Paul Hindemith (incidentally, this was also the first recording of any Bartók work); and another from 1934, by the Budapest Quartet, which at that time still retained a Hungarian member.

Among works of its time, the Quartet No. 2 is unusually structured, beginning and ending with slow movements that offset a fast middle movement. Fellow Hungarian, colleague, and friend Kodály characterized the three movements as “episodes” representing “peaceful life—joy—suffering.” The first movement is basically set in sonata form. The effect is one of deep focus and skill; the first nineteen measures contain the entirety of the motivic material. Bartók ends the movement without a hard sense of finality, but rather with expectancy. The wait is not long, for the second movement scherzo pushes forward with raw energy and ferocity. Bartók adds to the action by compounding themes from duple into triple time, an effective compositional technique that he carries through several of his other works as well. The coda is prestissimo and ethereal, but the final cadence is assured. Kodály’s reading perhaps best captures the nature of this music: that there is the sense of “more” behind the music, and that this sense of what is not there is the essence of the quartet.

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