Notos Quartett: Hungarian Treasures
If this is indeed the first commercial recording of a substantial but lost chamber work by Bartók, one’s instinctive reaction is at first excitement, and then suspicion. Bartók’s hardly neglected, after all. Whatever the exact provenance of this Piano Quartet in C minor (and don’t look to RCA’s booklet-notes for any meaningful help on that score), if it hasn’t been recorded until now, you can’t help wondering why.
The answer might perhaps be that it’s juvenilia, composed in 1898 by a school-age composer who’d clearly been listening to more Brahms than was entirely healthy. And that’s what you get: a vigorous, robustly constructed four-movement work covered with Brahms’s fingerprints and even a couple of near-quotes.
Only in a few places will you find foretastes of Bartók’s mature musical imagination: the violin’s stratospheric entries in the Adagio, that same movement’s curious two-part structure and a fiery, episodic finale, which, for all their fervour and commitment, the Notos Quartet can’t quite make hang together. Apparently they played from the composer’s manuscript; and despite a recorded balance that’s sometimes a little fuzzy in the middle, there’s a real immediacy about their playing. Whatever its merits, it’s hard to imagine this piece being championed with more conviction.
Still, if you listened to this disc sight unseen, you’d probably guess that Dohnányi’s lyrical, bittersweet F sharp minor Piano Quartet – also written by a teenager – was the real harbinger of genius here. It’s more inventive, more shapely, with an unmistakable tang of paprika. The Notos Quartet play it with poetry and verve, and the piece itself is sufficiently rare for this recording to count as something of an achievement. An enjoyably dancelike account of Kodály’s Intermezzo for string trio serves (in the group’s word) as a ‘sorbet’ – and completes a well-played and enterprising debut disc from this excellent young German ensemble.