Review: Keller Quartet; Bartok and Bach; Aldeburgh Festival; Aldeburgh Church; June 16

The Keller quartet made the first of three appearances at this year’s festival in which they perform all six of Bartok’s string quartets. Saturday’s weighty concert paired the third and fourth quartets either side of a significant amount of Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Bartok’s third quartet is generally agreed to be the most ‘difficult’ of the six and its elliptic, elusive nature and often aggressive writing certainly make heavy demands on listeners as well as performers. As in late Beethoven, Bartok sometimes seems to be communicating with himself, rather than the outside world. Nevertheless the quartet gave a disciplined and energetic reading and the various tempi were perfectly judged so that this single movement work reached its conclusion with that sense of having climbed a difficult peak and returned safely.

It was interesting and perhaps ambitious programming to follow this – and open the second half – with several contrapuncti and canons from Bach’s monumental work. Although not written for a string quartet they sound effective enough in the medium and the quartet’s precise intonation and sense of structure made for absorbing listening.

It must happen fairly rarely that Bartok’s fourth quartet is the ‘easiest’ piece in a programme but so it proved and the players gave a brilliant account of it, full of life, humour and invention. The core of the work is the fine slow movement in which Judit Szabo played her wistful cello solo with touching eloquence. On either side of this the Prestissimo, con sordino was simply thrilling, bursting with rushing energy and the Allegretto pizzicato, with its famous ‘snap’ pizzicatos had the gentle atmosphere of a serenade. The first movement, superbly constructed from the terse, six note chromatic opening and the most abstract of the movements, had a strong sense of momentum with effective accelerandos. However, it was the fifth movement with its multiple stops on open strings and evoking the atmosphere of a Magyar dance that really stole the show and the drive and �lan of the players was thrilling to watch and hear.

Gareth Jones

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