Bela BARTOK (1881 - 1945)
The String Quartets 2 CDs
Quartet No 1 Op 7 (1908-09) [29.42]
Quartet No 2 Op 17 (1915 - 1917) [26.08]
Quartet No 4 Sz 91 (1928) [23.11]
Quartet No 3 Sz 85 (1927) [15.14]
Quartet No 5 Sz 102 (1934) [29.42]
Quartet No 6 Sz 114 (1939) [29.42]
Recorded Polling, Bibliothekssaal 12/95 (Nos 1 - 3), and Salburg, Mozarteum,
Grosser Saal. 9 /1998 (Nos 4 - 6). DDD
Deutsche Grammophon 463 576-2
Generally acknowledged to be the greatest - certainly the most challenging
- string quartets since Beethoven, the six quartets by Bartok are some of
the supreme music of the last century. No serious challenger in the field
exists, other than Shostakovich and his magnificent cycle of fifteen quartets.
To a considerable degree, string quartet composition dominated Bartok's writing.
There were at least three works in the form (now lost) before the first of
the six written in 1908-9 and a seventh had the opening bars drafted when
the composer died. All six were written in Bartok's time in his native Hungary
and Europe before his eventual sad departure for the United States.
Apparently reluctant to record the full cycle, the Hagen recorded the quartets
in two blocks. The first three date from 1995 and there was an interval of
almost three years before Numbers 4, 5 and 6 were taped. In their public
performances of the quartets before recording, at one stage they withdrew
the 5th Quartet from their performing repertoire due to their own dissatisfaction
with the results. They concede that much of their insight into the scores
has been guided by György Kurtág, an acknowledged expert on Bartok,
in playing technique and in compositional analysis.
Covering thirty years, as the writing did, inevitably there is change in
Bartok's compositional style over the cycle. No 1 came under the influences
of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Debussy but even then the eastern European
folk element that became increasingly influential in his writing was present
and was more obvious in Number 2. The two middle quartets were the composer
at his severest and most extreme, while the final two were more traditional
despite being true to the composer's own highly personal writing. Increasingly
demanding technically with special calls for use of the extreme of the strings
(sul ponticello and sul tastiera), use of the back of the bow (col legno),
muted strings (con sordino) and the special Bartokian effect that, in a pizzicato
passage, insists that the string rebounds against the fingerboard.
The cumulative effect of listening to the six in sequence makes one aware
of the increasing distress and near- desolation in the slow movements, the
sharper and more astringent harmonies and the increasing regional folk music
presence - not in direct quotation but absorbed and implied.
Dazzling in execution - just listen to the Prestissimo con sordino
(No 4 / 2), the all Pizzicato Allegretto (4 / 4), the intricacies
of the "Bulgarian" Scherzo ( 5 / 3), and the barbaric attack in the
Finale of No 5, or almost anywhere else you care to try. There is
near faultless intonation and precise ensemble coupled with involvement and
empathy. Deeply felt throughout in the slow passages and especially in the
increasingly desolate Mesto introductions in Number 6 with its
near-suicidal feeling that closes the work. Yet the players still manage
to extract some humour from the musical parodies in the central sections
(6 / 2 and 6 / 3). The recording is a match for the Hagen's playing qualities.
A strong recommendation for these masterpieces on this new release and a
contender for the best version currently available - vying with the Emersons,
also on DG, for the honour. Any potential buyer could choose this version