Bartók String Quartets 1-6

Author: 
Rob Cowan

Bartók String Quartets 1-6

  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4
  • String Quartet No. 5
  • String Quartet No. 6

Approaches to Bartok’s string quartets might be divided, very roughly speaking, between the ‘post-Juilliard’ and ‘post-Vegh’, with the Emerson and ‘first’ Tokyo sets epitomizing the former trend, and this excellent new Takacs set the latter. Of course, the distinction is far from definitive (the Juilliard’s digital cycle – newly reissued on a budget-price Sony Essential Classics 2 set – marked a subtle step towards the ‘opposite’ camp), but to speak in terms of taut rhythmic delivery on the one hand and locally coloured phrasal flexibility on the other gives you at least some idea of what to expect.
The present production enjoys ambient, full-bodied sound that is more reminiscent of the concert-hall than of the studio. And the performances? They are right up there among the best, with more impressive sampling points than I could hope to enumerate in a single review. The First Quartet’s oscillating tempo-shifts work wonderfully well: sample track 2 on the first disc (the second movement), connect at 5'11'', and the tone intensifies, the tempo broadens (as marked – from around 5'29''), picks up again, eases, and so on – all with total naturalness. There are one or two anomalies, such as at 4'28'' into the first movement, where cellist Andras Fejer thrusts his sforzatos from somewhere above the prescribed chord – in fact, it sounds almost like a two-chord phrase. Characterization is equally strong elsewhere, not least 7'20'' into the first movement of the Second Quartet where Debussian arpeggios engage the senses, and 1'42'' into the second movement where Fejer races back into the rustic opening subject. The nightmare climax from 4'23'' into the last movement has rarely sounded more prophetic of the great Divertimento’s central movement.
The middle quartets work very well, with prominent inner voices in the Third (try the fugue at 3'21'' into track 5, disc 1) and plenty of swagger in the Fourth. The high spots of No. 4 are Fejer’s improvisational cello solo in the third movement (disc 1, track 6 – with husky chirrupings from leader Edward Dusinberre at 2'31'') and a finale where the violent opening is a hefty legato to compare with the sharper, more Stravinskian attack of, say, the Tokyo or Juilliard. Likewise, the sudden dance-like episode 3'00'' into the first movement of the Fifth Quartet (disc 1, track 7), savage music played from the pit of the stomach, while the third movement’s bleary-eyed viola melody over teeming violin triplets (1'36'') suggests peasants in caricature. The Takacs are especially responsive to Bartok’s sardonic humour – the ‘barrel-organ’ episode at the end of the Fifth Quartet, for example (5'40'') and the corny “Burletta” in the third movement of the Sixth (disc 1, track 11, from 1'47''). The Sixth itself features some of the saddest, wildest and wisest music written in the last 100 years: the opening viola solo recalls Mahler’s Tenth and the close fades to a mysterious question. Throughout the cycle, Bartok’s metronome markings are treated more as guidelines than as literal commands.
Relative strengths shared between rival versions make choosing a secure ‘front-runner’ very difficult, and personal taste will inevitably prove a deciding factor. Those favouring dry sound and precision-tooled execution are well served by DG with either the Tokyo or the Gramophone Award-winning Emerson – though please note that the mid-price Tokyo set is spread across three CDs. Likewise the Vegh’s Astree set, a classic recording that relates a campfire-style rightness of idiom, albeit with the occasional technical blemish. The forthcoming two-CD latest Juilliard cycle – an excellent sequence of performances – is more warming but less incisive than the 1960s recording (5/70 – nla) that we have all been waiting for but which Sony seem curiously reluctant to reissue. The new Takacs (an earlier Hungaroton recording, 3/85, nla – with different personnel – is nowhere near as convincing) proudly stands its ground, even in such exalted company. It communicates Bartok’s all-embracing humanity, and if the greatest string quartets after Beethoven are still unknown to you, then this new set may well prove the musical journey of a lifetime.'

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