Today, Professor Malcolm Gillies worked with students of the Guildhall School of Music and The Royal College of Music in a master class exploring aspects of Bartók’s 5th and 6th String Quartets. It was part of the Wigmore Hall’s Bartók Festival.
The first half of the afternoon investigated the connection between the second and fourth movements of Bartók’s Quartet No. 5, with the Guildhall’s Da Capo Quartet.
Gillies’ main point was that both require a sense of glacial colourlessness. He taught the quartet not to fear rests and the stillness of the long exposed passages of the movements. It was a class which warned against the age-old trap into which musicians often fall, of distorting the overall effect of a piece by focusing too intently on particular detail.
The young quartet responded well to instruction although they did seem a little intimidated. This was probably due to their austere surroundings (although Gillies did speak in a warm and friendly manner to try and counterbalance this). However, another reason for their hesitancy was possibly Gillies’ academic approach, which differs from that of many performing colleges; these usually focus on the more technical and practical aspects of a performance.
Gillies’ points were interesting and well made although perhaps too sweeping. They were essential to the understanding of Bartók’s compositional style but would have been more captivating if Gillies had gone into more detail. This was especially true of the analysis of the fourth movement, which was almost dismissed with Bartók’s self-assessment that the fourth movement is really a variation of the second’.
Next up was a quartet from the Royal College of Music. They seemed older and less timid then the previous quartet and were given more challenging music to prepare. They began their part of the masterclass by playing the first movement of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6.
This movement of the composer’s most mature String Quartet features a partial return to the red-blooded romanticism favoured by the composer in his earlier quartets. Gillies first asked the players what they felt they could have done better and in what ways the movement was difficult. He then explained their feelings by breaking down Bartók’s texture and analysing the music.
Gillies moved through the sonata form of the movement picking out moments where the music encouraged the players to play in certain ways which ultimately would put them in trouble. By highlighting this, the students were able to know what to be careful of so that the dynamics or tempo didn’t cascade out of control, for example.
Gillies led the masterclass in a fluid way. However, he could have afforded to be more demanding and detailed in the way in which he instructed. It is also a shame that the members of the two quartets were not more articulate and outspoken when asked about their views. This would have made the afternoon much more dynamic, because as it was, there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm which passed itself onto the audience.