I don’t go to enough chamber music concerts. My excuse is that, having performed chamber music way back when, it’s time-consuming, hard work. It is like intense team sports – you become aware of your role against the rest of the group. Your concentration and hearing becomes acute, you practice little things over and over again. It takes a long time to gel as an ensemble. And so on. That said, good ensembles do the basics well. Great ensembles make the impossible seem easy.
The Kelemen Quartet is a young and dynamic Hungarian string quartet. It’s also a family affair of sorts. First violin Barnabás Kelemen is married to violinst Katalin Kokas and Katalin’s sister Dora is the quartet’s cellist. Violist Gábor Homoki was a student at the Liszt Academy and joined the trio to form the quartet as it is now. They have travelled widely and won numerous prizes at competitions around the world.
Sadly, Dóra Kokas fractured her arm in a freak surfing accident in Australia – we wish her a speedy recovery. But rather than cancelling their concerts in Australia and New Zealand, arrangements were made to fly out Ákos Takács, founding cellist of the Auer Quartet as cover. Would this affect the ensemble or the sound in any way ? This challenge alone would make for an intriguing evening.
The programme seemed nicely balanced on paper and well-suited to this group – Mozart followed by Kodaly, then after the interval Haydn followed by Bartok.
Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet, so named because of its slow introduction and lack of harmony as the instruments come together, is well known. There was, however, no lack of harmony between the players. Good eye contact throughout and clear cues made for a very clean rendition of this piece. While the final Allegro Molto seemed rather too molto, the highlight was a beautifully weighted Andante Cantabile second movement demonstrating sensitive ensemble playing.
By contrast, Zoltan Kodaly’s Serenade for two violins and viola is not often performed, probably because it is a very challenging work. Still, you would expect that this might be akin to mother’s milk for a Hungarian ensemble and indeed it seemed to be. Freed from the apparently shackles of sonata form and conventional structures, there was an immediate change to excitingly dynamic and well-projected playing by all three performers equally. It was revelatory and the personal highlight of the evening.
Haydn’s Op. 20, No. 4 quartet performed after the interval is the best known of this set. While arguably not as complex as the other works on the programme, this allowed the quartet to demonstrate good, old fashioned ensemble performance. Cellist Takacs’ playing in the slow second movement was notable for its lyricism matched only by Kelemen’s own playing.
Bartok’s 4th String Quartet is a minefield for the performer as it is for the listener. The textbooks say that the work contains pentatonic, octatonic and even heptatonia seconda scales (whatever they are). Centred around its slow third movement, as leader Barnabás Kelemen said just before the performance, the quartet is “rough, tough music”. An apt description indeed for the first and last movements in particular, but the piece is notable for the exceptionally high degree of precision required to perform it. Even the distraction and enforced break caused by a popped string as they began the fourth pizzicato movement did not affect the performance in any way. Whether you liked the piece or not, you could not help appreciating the high quality of these musicians – they had all been put to the test through circumstance these last few weeks.
There was even time for an encore – an astonishing performance of the last movement of Beethoven’s third and final “Razumovsky” quartet. Performed at breakneck speed, it lacked for nothing in terms of virtuosity and precision. An amazing finish to a very good concert and proof that hard work can be absolutely worth it.