Concert review: Kelemen Quartet (Musica Viva)

MVA ICS 2014 Kelemen String Quartet

One man down but the heroic Hungarian’s don’t let that stop them.

City Recital Hall, Sydney

February 24, 2014

“Hungary is a landlocked country”. Thus spake Carl Vine in a concert preamble to explain the likely reason for the Kelemen Quartet heading straight for Manly Beach on arrival in Sydney – a trip that saw their cellist Dóra Kokas fracture her wrist as a result of a collision with a passing surfer. So, one man down at the start of their debut Australian tour but were the heroic Hungarians going to let that stop them? Not a bit of it, as this hastily devised program (or “celebration” as Vine put it) of solos, duos and trios for violins and viola proved.

The evening began with one of Mozart’s two duos, written to help out his friend Michael Haydn with an onerous commission (and long thought to actually be by him). It’s a charming, sunny work in B Flat Major for violin and viola and well worth the hearing, especially as played here by Barnabás Kelemen and his wife Katalin Kokas. Relishing the invention and the way Mozart throws the focus from one instrument to the other, the pair were elegance personified, capturing every ounce of the jaunty variety on offer. Classical delicacy was what was called for here and classical delicacy was what we got in the opening adagio. The tone was fuller for the lovely andante, befitting its more romantic leanings. The perky gavotte-like finale with variations was as light-footed as a Viennese dancing class.

It’s a brave violinist who steps up on spec to play Bartók’s solo sonata, but Kelemen won a Gramophone Award a few years back for his interpretation on disc so he has form. One of the most taxing works in the repertoire, it’s not always the easiest of rides for the audience either – I have to confess to having struggled with it on disc in the past. Bestriding the stage like a Mephistophelian colossus in his black smock, Kelemen proceeded to win us over with a logically controlled yet zesty account, tossing off its fiendish chromatics with enormous verve and passion, and using his body language to help him tell Bartók’s complex musical story. This is clearly a piece to watch as well as hear – a potent advocate for live music-making if ever there was one.

Tapping into his wild Hungarian roots, the barbaric fugue was handled with a tremendous sense of  inner-pulse. The wistful third movement was a lonely, haunting experience in Kelemen’s hands with some ravishing high pianissimo passages. The finale, where Bartók prefigures Ligeti, has a distinct whiff of the Flight-of-the-bumble-bee before launching into a robust dance complete with some tricky left-hand pizzicati. Kelemen’s was a virtuoso performance of the highest order and worth the ticket price alone.

The second half began with a delicious bouche amuse in the form of a Leclair sonata for two violins – all French froth and frippery with a dollop of rustic charm in the middle courtesy of one of those irresistible ‘musette’ movements. We were to have been treated to Ross Edwards’ latest String Quartet No 3 (intriguingly called Summer Dances) but alas, ‘twas no to be. Instead we got the two violin arrangement of Ecstatic Dances played by Kelemen and Gábor Homoki. Considering the score, strung out precariously across two music stands, had only arrived the previous day, this was far from a seat-of-the-pants performance.

The ad hoc evening was rounded off with a rare work outside of Hungary – Kodály’s Serenade for two violins and viola. This joyful work, all Eastern European bravado with that tang of folk-like authenticity that Kodály and his friend Bartók brought to such music, is underpinned with that oh-so-special hint of Hungarian melancholy. It’s a meaty work, and well worth getting to know with a timbre akin to a fully-fledged string quartet. The nocturnal rustlings of the second movement were eerily portrayed by the Kelemens, with musical imitations of flies, frogs and crickets. The dancing finale with its pungent harmonies and hazy sunshine is a reminder that we don’t hear enough Kodály in this country – in fact, we don’t hear enough Kodály, period.

The Kelemen Quartet are on national tour with Musica Viva and their program will change once Ákos Takács, who is flying out from Hungary, joins them as substitute cellist. But those of us present last night had no need to feel short-changed as these three plucky players pulled a delightfully Hungarian cat out of the bag.

By Clive Paget

This review first appeared at,concert-review-kelemen-quartet-musica-viva.aspx on Feb 25, 2014 



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