Kelemen String Quartet

I went to see the Kelemen String Quartet from Hungary at the Harold Lobb Concert Hall. I didn’t know anything about this group hitherto seeing them in concert, and whether this was because I was busy with university work, the fact that I wanted to see the concert with no pre-assumed expectations or even out of sheer laziness on my part (probably all three in equal measure) I’m glad that I didn’t, as it allowed me to be serenaded by the vibrant scope of repertoire with a completely open mind.


The concert commenced with Summer Dances by one of Australia’s best-known composers, Ross Edwards. The work consists of five movements; Forest I (Introduction), Fire Trail, Forest II (Nocturne), Lotus Dance and Ecstatic Dance. After the ceremonial concert initiation of tuning, the aesthetically picturesque members of the quartet entered the stage, precociously looming the room filled with an entirely receptive and appreciative applause from the audience. Following the subsidence of the applause, a suspenseful vacancy of sound was administered, and from this short lived bracket of spatial muteness arose a subtle and ominous ambience permeating the acoustic properties of the room, issuing from the sonorous lower register of the cello playing in a minor tonality at a elegantly glacial tempo. Progressively, an unfolding of brighter tone colours in the violin and viola lines, infused with excitable rhythmic developments, fastening and slowing of tempo and abrupt dynamic and timbral contrasts with the different instrumental lines took place. Conjunctively, the tonality of the music consisted of nuances of familiar western modes amidst less familiar modes of Eastern European and South East Asian origin which almost seemed to verge on the cusp of atonality through frequent use of chromaticism, along with harmonic progressions often ending justifiably abrupt and unresolved.


Right before the quartet entered the stage and performed Summer Dances, Ross Edwards himself gave a preface to his work and the creative process on which it is based. Edwards’ music is reminiscent humanity’s age-old mysteries, simultaneously celebrating themes of both Australian culture and its natural environment. Summer Dances is emulative of the melodic patterns of bird song and the drone like cry of insects, both of which climactically amplify with the progression of an Australian summer day. The avant-garde and often surprising tonalities, married with bright tone colours, reflect the strange blossoming flowers of the Australian bush, and the rhythmic developments draw inspiration from cultural dances aimed at celebrating and promoting humanities mystical relationship with the earth.


Summer Dances is a work that aims to capture the essence of the comprising natural elements which collectively construct an experience of being immersed in the Australian natural environment, with Edwards calling upon innovative musical techniques involving radical timbral contrasts, unconventional tonalities and rapid tempo changes (to name a few) to translate this dazzling vision of nature into the medium of string quartet.


Following Summer Dances was String Quartet no5 Sz102 by Béla Bartók (1928). With reassured eye-contact based dialogue between the players, the empty acoustic space was again ignited, this time with all instruments playing in rhythmic unison, bringing focus on to the almost exotic chromaticism of the melodic fragments, with subtle glimpses of major tonalities. Following this rhythmic unison of the instrumental lines comes a tumultuous up-rise of rapid dance like rhythmic passages, which shift suddenly to a slower pace and softer dynamic. Sudden shifts in dynamics, tempo and tone colour are characterstic of this work, and operating in conjunction with frequent use of chromaticism, double stopping and suspenseful interrupted cadences, interweaved with subtle nuances of major tonalities and fleeting perfect and plagal cadences within phrases induce an overall thrilling, uneasy, engaging and at times insidious experience for the listener, until at last a virtuosic, swarming uproar of ascending harmonies and cresendi accompanied by accelerando vivace epically brings the music to its coda.


As with Summer Dances, this piece was given a short preface, this time by the violinist Barnabás Kelemen. He stated that Béla Bartók aspired to explore the possibilities of string instruments in the act of applying Eastern European folk music, as well as drawing upon sounds of nature such as unseen birds and insects (not dissimilar to Ross Edwards). One aspect of Bartók’s musicality, which was addressed with considerable distinction, was the fact that he preferred to let his music speak for itself and have it’s symbolic musical gestures, as explained through words, kept to a minimum. Considering the explicit and sharp contrasts in all faculties of the music, such as the shifting tempo, the sudden rise and drop of register or swift swapping of melody in the instruments to create tonal differentiation, the music opted for a highly and unequivocally engaging musical experience for the listener despite the point being made of it having minimum description of it’s meaning outside the music itself, which is known to be true due to the grand sigh of exhilaration given by the audience immediately after the music’s coda.


Béla Bartók’s String Quartet no5 Sz102 proved to be a thrilling and captivating work that exemplified, to a evocative extent, the vast range of possibility within the instrumental construct of the string quartet. This was communicated through musical faculties such as dynamic variation, timbral diversity and management of fast rhythmic passages, all of which necessitate intricate collaboration mixed with virtuosic instrumental technique.


Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet no 3 in E flat minor, op 30 (1876) followed a short intermission. This is a work that starts gently, with a slow and drawn out tempo, gentle harmonic progressions and a legato melody line, with a few small nuances of chromaticism. From this arises a quiet, pulsing cello ostinato, which becomes the foundation of a successive virtuosic tumult, comprising mainly of complex rhythmic constructs, a forte dynamic and flaring harmonic passages. This is however quickly reverted back to a much more gentle phrase, similar to the first. These radical contrasts set up the character for this piece, as it continues to alternate between gripping and excitable passages to subdued sections, each having its own musical statement. There are echoes of Bach influenced counterpoint melody and ornamentation, there are passages of open fifths and fourths reminiscent of Gregorian chant music, modal nuances suggestive of gypsy music and one quirky section of bouncy pizzicato, which almost acted as a release from other virtuosic passages of athletic proportions. After many varying statements in the music, it ends with a defiant perfect cadence played at a forte dynamic, a thick texture and vibrant blend of tone colours, held for at least a whole bar.


Given the musical demands of the Romantic period such as exotic tonalities, innovate virtuosic techniques and the emotionally heavy interpretation it necessitates, music for string quartets was a rarity in this time among composers. Furthermore, Romantic artists who did compose works for string quartets, such as Tchaikovsky, were largely unacknowledged for such works, namely because the intimidatingly high technical and emotional demands of interpreting such music rendered it rarely performed. The vibrancy of String Quartet no 3 in E flat minor, op 30 in terms of the conspicuous contrast of themes it conveys, along with being inspired on Tchaikovsky’s part by emotionally volatile concepts pertaining to mortality, death and bereavement (not an uncommon notion for Romantic artists), decreed it as a seriously challenging work, and its execution by the Kelemen String quartet was thereby adrenaline-charged and cathartic to witness.


Having a work predicated on the complexities of Romanticism, working within the construct of the string quartet medium, was enough to assume the role of abstract paraphernalia for a excitingly nerve wracking anticipation immediately before being submitted to a treacherously emotional and thrilling mental journey upon witnessing the performance.


The considerably far-reaching scope of repertoire presented by the Kelemen String quartet exemplified to an impressive extent not only the technical capabilities of the players themselves, but also their open mindedness and versatility for varying styles of playing in different genres as well as the intricate collaboration and active dialogue between the players themselves, not to mention their warm and reverent acknowledgement of the audience. What was particularly compelling about the quartet is their willingness to promote contemporary Australian music through playing Ross Edwards’ Summer Dances, giving them exposure to Australian audiences and offering their own musical backgrounds of a European foundation to innovative styles of playing in Australian classical music. Furthermore, playing Summer Dances alongside works by Bartók and Tchaikovsky interweaves Australian classical music to the vast panorama of classical music in general, bringing hope to the awareness and application of Australian classical music into the view of music among the public. The audience was of course treated to an encore work of Beethoven’s Razmorski string quartet in C major, concluding the concert with a highly thrilling, adrenaline inducing and endorphin-releasing finale for the concert, which was of course followed with hullabaloo of applause.


The concert Kelemen String Quartet was an inspiring, electrifying, illuminating and therapeutic experience, stemming from a confluence of a vibrant repertoire deliverance, the visual spectacle of focused virtuosic playing, the engaging and at times infectious communicational gestures and collaboration between the players as well as their well-mannered comportment towards the audience. Doubtless, each member of the audience, if not the inexorably outweighing majority, left the concert venue feeling rejuvenated, euphoric andhigh spirited, not only in response to the quartet, but for the infectious capability of classical music concerts overall.


By Joseph Asquith

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