So I subsequently placed the folksong as a kind of password at the beginning of the movement […] but the work itself did not originate from the song and I did not set to work with the intention of treating the folksong in sonata form, for I knew at the very outset that this is impossible.
Instead Kodály uses the material as the work’s thematic core, in a manner not dissimilar to the motto in Debussy’s 1893 String Quartet (albeit less self-evident). Kodály had visited Paris in 1907, where he studied briefly with Widor, and both Debussy’s work and Ravel’s 1903 tribute Quartet doubtless influenced the structure and sound-world of Kodály’s work. The thematic material in the first movement is shared equally between the players, though one often snatches it from another, creating a spirited sense of confrontation. This is emphasized by the spinning of individual motifs into repetitive Janácek-like ostinato figures. The intensity abates at the beginning of the second movement (Lento assai, tranquillo), though folksong clearly influences the harmonic language here, generating moments of searing intensity before they too recede. That sense of ebb and flow is particularly evident in the fugue. A pizzicato section offers a more jocular though no less contrapuntal response and then moves back to the original subject.
The Presto begins as a dance, though it too has a more sophisticated edge, with highly variegated harmonies and a melancholic trio. Counterpoint returns at the opening of the finale, as does the plangent cello, before a courtly common-time dance is treated to a sequence of variations. Closer at first to Viennese models than the Gallic style of Debussy and Ravel or the peppery tones of Kodály’s native Hungary, the variations nonetheless become more outlandish, with a final cadence that accentuates C major with a goodly dose of local colour.
from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2014