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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartets 1-6
Juilliard Quartet
Recorded 1950
PEARL GEMS 0147 [2 CDs 155’40]

 

 

 

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There have been three Juilliard cycles of the Bartók Quartets. The most recent dates from 1981, the most international in its appeal was from 1963 – by which time only two of the original members remained - and the first set was recorded in 1950, and now makes a resplendent reappearance in this Pearl "twofer." In 1950 the Juilliard was a youthful quartet which had only been formed four years before at the instigation of William Schuman. Robert Mann and Robert Koff were the violinists, Raphael Hillyer the violist and Arthur Winograd was the cellist – all Juilliard faculty members. Robert Matthew-Walker’s sleeve-note is expert at tracing the recordings’ genesis – made, as his note reminds us, not on tape but on large acetate discs. The Juilliard had given the first public American cycle of the quartets in New York during February and March 1949. Columbia’s chief, Goddard Lieberson, duly signed them up to make an integral set of the Bartók quartets – adding for good measure the Schoenberg Quartets amongst a number of prestigious recordings in the years that followed. The recordings were issued on six 78rpm sets in 1951 and this Pearl reissue is apparently their first CD incarnation. They were not by any means the first performances of individual quartets – No 1 had been recorded by the Pro Arte, No 2 by the Amar-Hindemith and the Budapest Quartets, No 3 made an early LP appearance courtesy of the New Music Quartet, the splendid Guilet Quartet essayed No 4 whilst the Hungarians were back for Nos 5 and 6 – and in the case of the last quartet the Gertler Quartet set down a recording for Decca and the Erling Bloch did likewise for HMV.

But this was nevertheless the first complete cycle and a dramatically auspicious start to the Juilliard’s long career. All the performances are fully engaged and involved and small technical or rhythmic incongruities are of very little account in the face of such committed and often revelatory playing. The earlier incarnation of the Juilliard lacked the tonal finesse that increased with experience – and cellist Arthur Winograd was a noticeably less suave performer than Claus Adam who succeeded him, though that’s not always to Adam’s advantage in this of all repertoire. The pleasures of the early set are however legion. Winograd’s ardent expressivity courses through the first movement of No 1 – not over vibrated and with a rapt intensity. The Allegretto is illuminated by deliciously swaying rhythmic impetus and the finale is well controlled, with both violinists varying tonal production to real musical advantage. In the Second Quartet the Juilliard manage to integrate the much slower, more ruminative central panel of the first movement with judicious imagination. In the second movement there is no etiolation – they mine the mordant, hothouse atmosphere with impeccable logic and the finale is similarly sensitive. Only some surface scuffs – from LP transfers? – slightly mar the depth and plangency of the playing. The Third Quartet of 1927 with its disparities and disjunctions of tone and dynamics receives an excellent traversal though one perhaps not optimally adjusted to the vertiginous heights and depths of the work. Still this is an outstanding performance on its own terms, the high point of which is the second movement – strongly accented, the folk inflections integrated, sensible dynamics, resilient and determined music making, ironclad in rhythm, impressive in stature. The Fourth Quartet was the one famously criticised by Shostakovich; the Juilliard meets its exceptional challenges head on. Very occasionally one feels that the Juilliard hadn’t quite reconciled itself to some of the more problematic aspects of the writing and were consequently less propulsive than they might be – but this is a small quibble. They are more than adequately sensitive in the final movement Non troppo lento. The Fifth features a most exactingly beautiful slow movement, one to which the Juilliard brings tremendous reserves of sustaining and luminous power; the interiority of the movement is delineated with unerring rightness; listen to the way Hillyer’s viola steals into the texture as one small but singular example of the finesse and acute ear for balance that all these performances possess. Equally the fresh air convulsiveness of the finale is intoxicating – vividly played, humorously inflected, triumphantly concluded. The Sixth Quartet receives a performance that teems with passionate declamation. Now driving and intense, now affecting and lyrical, the Juilliard retain an equipoise and a balance between the polar oppositions of the work that only strengthens and deepens its profile. This is not immaculate playing, the tone does roughen and occasionally coarsen but this is playing that exists through and above such considerations; playing of immediacy and conviction, of a rare imaginative understanding.

The transfers are, apart from the single instance of chuffing, excellent and the booklet informative. The performances are, obviously, outstanding. Whichever cycle you possess, whether by the Julliard or by other Quartets (the Takacs and Vegh come to mind) this first cycle will remain of prime importance in the discography of the Bartók Quartets.

Jonathan Woolf


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