Around the World With Six Quartets

Some music is stale before the composer sets down the last double bar. Some springs back newborn with every hearing. Time has yet to catch up with the scores of Béla Bartók, who died a half century ago this year, in observance of the milestone, the Emerson Quartet has been celebrating the anniversary on three continents with marathon concerts of the composer’s six string quartets. The grand finale is set for December 3 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, in New York (212-721-6500). Played straight through, the music clocks in at two and a half hours. Long, one may grant, but not Herculean—until one factors in not only the technical terrors but above all the phenomenal imaginative demands. Everywhere (and especially in the quartets), Bartók conjures up the sense of life contained, like a bullfrog in a jar or bees in a hive or whatever creature it is that burrows and riots inside a Mexican jumping bean. Exotic shreds (gypsy? Egyptian?) float or whiz by. Vast interstellar emotional and aesthetic spaces are leapt in no time. Here, hardly sounded, a sick little music-box tune is wiped out by some mad frenzy. There a hero’s coffin passes by torchlight. Plunks, glides, furious skittering, harmonies suspended like a midnight sun . . . the musical substance contains nothing pictorial, yet the quartets are a magic lantern, lighting up the receptive mind with images as fleeting, sulfur-dusted, and inextinguishable as Goya’s nightmare Caprichos. The artists of the Emerson Quartet have proved themselves masters of Bartók’s fantastic soundscape in a Grammy-winning album on Deutsche Grammophon. In real time the adventure could well prove still more intense.