Bartók String Quartets
Both these reissued sets totally outclass their most recent digital rivals, and yet initial comparisons between the two reveal a number of telling differences: the Novak Quartet's mellow reserve, for example, is in marked contrast to the Tokyo's febrile, acutely responsive attack; while Philips's warm-textured sound is quite unlike the harder profile and sharper focusing favoured by DG (a Gramophone Award winner in 1981). Sometimes I felt that the Novak rather dulled the cutting edge of Bartok's more acerbic writing (in the Third and Fourth Quartets, particularly), but then the last two quartets are wonderfully communicative: the Fifth with its shimmering Adagio and Andante, the Sixth with its sorrowful predominance of Mesto (''sad'').
Not that the Tokyo lack heart. In fact, of the two quartet leaders, Koichiro Harada has the more vibrant tone, and his contribution to the Sixth Quartet in particular wrings every ounce of emotion from the score. And when it comes to the work's closing pizzicato chords, his players are the more lovingly attentive, arpeggiating the phrase so as to highlight its relationship to crucial episodes earlier on in the movement. On the other hand, the Novak make the Marcia and Burletta sections sound like folk-music improvisations, and quite unlike the Chaplinesque humour suggested by the Tokyo. However, perspectives reverse somewhat for the Fifth Quartet, where the Tokyo's extra tautness and precision make for a powerfully wrenching first movement and a carefree Alla bulgarese, both of which sound more rhythmically alert than they do on the Philips set.
In the Third and Fourth Quartets, the Tokyo again score by dint of superior ensemble, keener accents and a winning elan; they are also more alert to the music's delicate textures and rhythmic complexities, whereas the more laid-back Novak tend to underplay sforzatos and occasionally allow the tension to flag. And yet their very suppleness pays its own special dividends—in the Fourth's Allegretto pizzicato, for example, where relative ease of delivery makes for impressive textural and stereophonic clarity. The first two quartets find the Novak strong on mystery, the Tokyo on dynamic inflexion (theirs is by far the more vivid account of the Second's Allegro molto capriccioso, the closing prestissimo most especially).
The Novak sometimes under-project Bartok's dynamic markings (for example, molto appassionato at fig. 7 in the First Quartet's first movement), whereas the Tokyo's 'nervous edge' can occasionally lead to exaggerated characterization. Still, when the cards are down and a final reckoning to hand, the Tokyo have the edge: their searing intensity, acute sense of colour and total commitment to each score combine for maximum impact which, if you don't already know the music, can't fail to win you over. If you do, then the Novak's manifold insights and affecting Innigkeit should make for an enlightening extension of your experience (and, of course, the format and price impose minimum financial and spatial sacrifices).
The DG recordings were taped at various locations but have been fairly well matched, whereas Philips's (excellent) engineering is more wholly consistent. Both sets represent, in their very different ways, superb value for money, although it is a pity that DG didn't follow Philips's lead and issue the six works on two CDs. By my reckoning, they probably could have done so.'