By HOWARD SMITH



For nearly a year the New Zealand String Quartet has kept a secret from the world's musical cognoscenti. They hold the sole performing rights to a long-neglected 1937 quartet by Zoltan Szekely, a former leader of the Hungarian Quartet.



Szekely was a confidant of Bela Bartok and dedicated to his epoch-making Violin Concerto No 2.



The NZSQ plan to tour Szekely's muscular, highly distinctive work throughout Europe and the United States this year and hope to have it available on CD before their rights expire next year.

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They premiered the substantial eight-movement 30-minute work at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, where Szekely, now aged 97, has lived for three decades. Cellist Rolf Gjelsten and violinist Douglas Beilman have studied with Szekely.



Banff Centre summer music director Tom Rolston visited New Zealand three years ago to produce the NZSQ's Bartok cycle for CD (Manu-BMG). When Szekely completed his quartet in 1937 he entered it in the Coolidge Competition. Miffed at its failure he withdrew the score from circulation and the passionate, vigorously rhythmic work was history.



The same year Szekely was invited to lead the Hungarian String Quartet and Sandor Vegh stepped into the second violin chair. By 1972 the Hungarians had acquired legendary status and after world-wide tours, including three to New Zealand, the much-travelled quartet disbanded.



Rolston invited Szekely to live at the centre as permanent artist-in-residence and the veteran accepted without hesitation.



Asked in the mid-1990s what one wish he still had in life, Szekely replied: "To have my quartet played." He had never heard it played before a concert audience. Rolston chose the New Zealanders for the premiere.



In 1995 the NZSQ toured for Chamber Music New Zealand, performing the six Bartok Quartets in five centres. At the same time the innovative Hamilton Chamber Music Society engaged the NZSQ to perform all six works during three sessions in a single day.



Gjelsten says that Szekely is probably the greatest living authority on Bartok. In March 1939, Szekely gave the world premiere of Bartok's Concerto No 2 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg.



Later, the Hungarian Quartet became incomparable advocates for Bartok's quartet cycle. More recently, like the NZSQ, the modern Takacs and Eder Quartets also went to Banff when studying Bartok's works. Though Rolston had the better-known Takacs Quartet at his beck and call, the Banff musicians agreed that the Downunder group should premiere the music.



In July 1999, biographer Claude Kenneson sent Szekely's meticulous handwritten manuscript to New Zealand.



"We noted that there were no metronome markings at all, only basic indications such as allegro, scherzo or presto," violinist Helene Pohl says. But the score was scrupulous in all other performance details with the bowing and fingering all painstakingly worked out.



"When we finally met Szekely and glanced at his copy of the manuscript," Gjelsten says, "we were astonished to discover metronome indications on every tempo change marked in pen throughout the work. He must have added them in the few months after we'd already received our copy of the score."



Violist Gillian Ansell recalls Szekely as a tiny, stooped man, frail and slow, yet he still spent hours working with scores and textbooks.



The work is highly structured, with a remarkably expressive abandonment that evokes life on the Hungarian plains east of the Danube.



In his book Szekely and Bartok: The Story of a Friendship, Kenneson recounts that in 1936 Szekely returned from giving concerts in Switzerland and the Netherlands and busied himself with copying the manuscript of his string quartet, a work which utilises many modern devices - notably complex polyrhythms - in preparation for the competition.



Other compositions had met with more immediate success. They included the Solo Violin Sonata (1919) and Duo for Violin and Cello (1925) which he toured extensively with cellist Pal Hermann. At the premiere of the sonata, Szekely received a standing ovation from an audience that included Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.



The work, recorded in 1997, is available on CD (Capriccio) with Leipzig violinist Kolja Lessing.



"It is a rare event for a living composer whose works were created before the mid-20th century to enjoy a serious revival of interest in his music," Kenneson says.



And Pohl says that embracing the work more than 60 years after its composition is like entering a time-warp. "Szekely wrote it as the threat of war held Europe in its menacing grip and the whole experience took us to that time and the work's conception."