Hungarian flavour in rich offerings

By William Dart

Kelemen Quartet show their pride in their country's contribution to Western concert music

Barnabas Kelemen says he is drawn to the enormous repertoire available for string quartets.
Barnabas Kelemen says he is drawn to the enormous repertoire available for string quartets.

Barnabas Kelemen has the edge on his colleagues in the Kelemen Quartet, which is playing in Hamilton and Auckland next week. The violinist visited two years ago as soloist with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

"All my memories are wonderful," says the Hungarian, "musically, personally and geographically."

Many Aucklanders will have vivid memories of that concert. Kelemen not only delivered a sparkling Mozart Concerto, but Paganini and Bach encores showed the style that won him Hungary's Classical Musician of the Year award in 2003. Nevertheless, chamber music was always in this man's blood.

"I was dreaming of being in a string quartet when I was only 14. It was already there in my soul."

When the Kelemen Quartet formed in 2009, international recognition was quick to follow, with top honours at the 2011 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition.

Above all, Kelemen is drawn to the enormous repertoire available to just four string players.

"Major composers who might have written one or two violin concertos have given us many more quartets," he explains. "It's only pianists who can really compete with us."

He is proud of the contribution Hungary has made to the rich stream of Western concert music and the Kelemen Quartet's New Zealand programmes include works by Hungarian composers Kodaly and Bartok.

But it is not only composers who have forged a reputation for his country; there are also many players, some of whom created a number of last century's greatest chamber ensembles.

"You could say it started with Joseph Joachim, whose group played the string quartets of Brahms," he points out, following a thread through to a list of groups that includes the Budapest, Hungarian, Keller and Auer Quartets. "We were so lucky that Akos Takacs, who was once cellist with the Auer Quartet, could join us on this tour when Dora Kokas was injured in Australia last month."

Kelemen is more than happy to talk through next week's offerings. Haydn's Opus 20 No4 brings praise for the man who was "responsible for the very birth of the string quartet. Already there's something magical there, from a composer who could sense the potential of this form."

There is no room for complacency with Papa Haydn, he says, so best be prepared for surprises. "Haydn was the greatest future-teller," Kelemen points out. "There's a moment in the fourth movement which reminds me so much of Prokofiev," he adds, picking up his violin to demonstrate.

He admits that Kodaly's 1920 Serenade Trio for two violins and viola is rarely performed, "probably because it's so hard to play. It takes its inspiration from Dohnanyi, Richard Strauss and Debussy, but in a very special way, using Hungarian elements such as slow, sad songs and the fiery Czardas dance."

With Bartok's Fourth Quartet, Kelemen highlights the central movement, "the deep soil from which the whole work grows, particularly in the way that Bartok catches the sounds of nature".

Inevitably, with Hungary bordering Ukraine, Kelemen is concerned about what is happening in Kiev. His first 12 years were spent in a Hungary that had not yet liberated itself from the Soviet bloc.

"I do remember in our home having to talk about sensitive matters in a whisper, and the atmosphere that came from not being able to speak," he says. "The lack of freedom was still there and it's so wonderful that the next generation doesn't feel this."


What: Kelemen Quartet

Where and when: Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton, Tuesday at 7.30pm; Auckland Town Hall, Wednesday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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