The Alexander String Quartet returns to the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre on Sunday with the second installment of this season’s concert series featuring the string quartets of early 20th century Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.
The 2 p.m. Sunday performance will include comments by popular lecturer, music historian and composer Robert Greenberg, who appears regularly at the quartet’s afternoon performances at the Mondavi Center. The 7 p.m. performance will feature a question-and-answer period with the musicians after the show.
The program for both performances is the same: the respective Second String Quartets by Bartók and Kodály. The two composers were friends (both interested in the traditional music of their native land), and they were both young professors at the Budapest Academy of Music, when their First String Quartets were premiered in 1910 by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet. That same ensemble premiered Second String Quartets by Bartók and Kodály in 1918.
Kodály’s Second String Quartet — a two-movement work running a tad longer than 16 minutes — is less than half the length of the composer’s First String Quartet (also in three movements, but running about 38 minutes). But many would regard the Second String Quartet as the better of the two, with the composer incorporating various melodic shapes and inflections from Hungarian folk music, but doing so in his own way, without specifically quoting any traditional Hungarian tunes. The final movement is a set of lively, stirring dances, ending with a flair.
It’s also the composer’s last string quartet. Even though Kodály was a string player himself — capable with violin, viola and cello — and he lived until 1967, he stopped writing chamber music after 1920, and devoted his efforts as a composer largely to orchestral music.
Bartók, on the other hand, took a break from composing starting in 1912, concentrating instead on teaching and collecting folk tunes. He came back to composing in 1915, and completed his Second String Quartet in 1917. The Second Quartet has an unusual structure — of its three movements, the fast one comes in the middle, while the final movement (marked Lento) is very slow and sometimes mournful, fading out quietly into silence at the end.
The Alexander String Quartet is also enjoying good reviews for its recent three-CD set covering the complete string quartets of Bartók and Kodály, released last fall on the Foghorn label.
Reviewer Dominy Clements of MusicWeb International wrote “Bartók’s string quartets are amongst the most superb and striking of the entire 20th century, and the ASQ does them proud in these performances. … (The Kodály Quartets) are very much worth having, and while they don’t share Bartók’s white-hot creative extremes they are both pieces which reward at every level. …
“Having lived with this package for some time I have to say it easily passes my ‘desert island’ test: in other words, if all my other versions were dumped onto a desert island and I was left on the mainland with only this one, I would be perfectly happy.”
And reviewer Steven Ritter of Audiophile Audiotion wrote, “If ever an album had ‘Grammy nominee’ written on its front cover, this is it. There have only been a handful of ‘complete’ Bartok quartets recordings that one can call ‘legendary’ — the 1963 Juilliard, 1998 Takacs and the 1988 Emerson — but without doubt these new readings will ascend quickly to that exalted status.
“Astoundingly enough, I know of only one other recording of the two Kodaly quartets — by the Kodaly Quartet on Hungaraton from 1995 — and the inclusion of these two wonderful works more than doubles the value of this set.”
Tickets for Sunday’s concerts are $54 general, $24.50 for UC Davis students, and are available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.