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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No.1, Op.7 (1908-9) [29’24]
String Quartet No.2, Op.17 (1915-17) [26’08]
String Quartet No.3 (1927) [15’17]
String Quartet No.4 (1928) [23’08]
String Quartet No.5 (1934) [31’09]
String Quartet No.6 (1939) [29’07]
Vermeer Quartet
Recorded at St. John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, May 2001, February 2003 and February 2004
NAXOS 8.557543-44 [75’49 + 78’23]

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The greatest, most seminal string quartet cycle since Beethoven’s has done exceptionally well on disc. There are at least a dozen highly recommendable sets of the Bartók quartets now on the market, including some at around Naxos price. This new Vermeer cycle has its work cut out to make inroads.

On initial acquaintance, I feel a bit like I did about Marin Alsop’s Miraculous Mandarin, though maybe not quite as strongly; that is, some very good things in and among, but ultimately not enough bite and attack to make it truly memorable. The Vermeers produce a warm, homogenous sound that suits some passages more than others. They seem very much led from the front, as it were, with veteran Shmuel Ashkenasi’s first violin often dominating the texture. His smooth sound, with its rich vibrato, is quite romantic and singing, but lacks something of a raw edge at times.

The wisps of Debussy and Brahms that are just about still evident in the First Quartet help to suit the Vermeer’s expressive style. The first movement’s violin duet motif is beautifully phrased, and the polyphonic workings of the development section also emerge with clarity and an unforced eloquence. Likewise, the Second Quartet’s more daring territories (shades of Schoenberg’s Second Quartet here) are charted with the same sense of ease and line, so that one can bask in the harmonies rather than be brought up short by them.

Where things get muddier is in the trio of middle quartets, where Bartók’s astringency and dissonance need to pack a wallop. The Vermeers seem almost lax in what Paul Griffiths calls the ‘furious compactness’ of the Third Quartet, particularly when compared to, say, the Alban Berg Quartet, whose mid-1980s EMI set has long been my benchmark. It’s not particularly about tempo - although the ABQ do shave off well over a minute from what is only a 15-minute work - but more about tightness of rhythmic attack and crispness of phrasing. Similarly, the Fourth Quartet’s muscular opening, with its hints of Berg’s Lyric Suite, sounds just a trifle slack and lacking urgency. They do make some amends with an atmospheric lento third movement, the heart of the five-movement arch structure, but they are no match for the ABQ in the virtuosic scherzos that frame it, especially the famous pizzicato fourth movement or the prestissimo second.

As so often with Naxos and the market it aims at, no-one chancing on this in their local store will be at all disappointed. But a few minutes’ comparison with other sets, notably the Takács and Emersons (full price) or the excellent, idiomatic Hungarian ensemble the Keller Quartet (super-budget Ultima) may just show up some of the shortcomings of this new set. I say ‘may’, because as I write and the Vermeers wing their way through the Sixth Quartet in the background, I begin to admire their playing more and more ...

The sound is a touch dry and close, which highlights some of the playing qualities mentioned above, but is remarkably consistent for what was a three year recording venture. Richard Whitehouse’s perceptive notes are, as usual, a model of their kind.

Tony Haywood

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