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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No.1, Op.7 (1908-9) [29:07]
String Quartet No.2, Op.17 (1915-17) [25:23]
String Quartet No.4 (1928) [21:54]
String Quartet No.3 (1927) [14:58]
String Quartet No.5 (1934) [28:17]
String Quartet No.6 (1939) [28:17]
Keller Quartet: András Keller (violin I), János Pils (violin II), Zoltán Gál (viola), Ottó Kertész (cello).
rec. Salle de musique de la Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 24-26 November 1993, 17-20 January, 28 February-4 March, 18-20 June, 14-19 October, 15-16 December 1994.
WARNER APEX 2564 62686-2 [76:59 + 72:22]



With a number of excellent complete sets of the Bartók string quartets on the market, this reissue – its third incarnation as far as I can tell - has stiff competition. At budget price it undercuts most of the big names, and my initial impressions tell me that it can still hold its own among the heavyweights. Originally on the Erato label, it was released in 1995 to positive reviews. The booklet notes are adequate and informative, based on András Wilheim’s original notes for Erato. My principal source of comparison is the Takács quartet on Decca from 1998, this particular set having been my ‘Desert Island’ selection for some time now.

Straightaway I was impressed by the Keller’s sound. Their recording is slightly less three-dimensional stereo, a little dryer than the Takács’, but nonetheless beautifully clear. A/B comparisons will always throw up differences in perspective, but in this case there are no real complaints. Take the serene opening of quartet No.1: there is a little too much heavy breathing from Mr. Keller himself, but the sustained qualities of the music carry all of the sighing sadness one could wish for. I like the Keller’s restraint with vibrato as well. The Takács’ inquiring, searching opening to the second movement has more colour and variety than the more lyrical approach of the Kellers. The lively discourse which follows has both clarity and restrained drama. The Takács dig deeper and take more risks, becoming larger than life sometimes. The explore the extremes of contrast with more impact.

Pulling out my well thumbed pocket score of the second quartet I can get a clearer idea of what’s going on. Following the score, it’s apparent that the Keller are painting with a broader brush, making the bigger musical points by sustaining dynamics and tempi over the length of musical paragraphs – not passing over inner detail, and never losing sight of the goal. The Takács seem to explore more of the micro-potential of each moment while also holding on to the structural milestones. As I compare each performance I find myself increasingly appreciating the Keller’s refinement. Another example of this is the opening of the second movement. I love the Keller’s accuracy, drama and gritty folksiness. I prefer their less extreme approach to the ritard and accel instructions. This is a case of swings and roundabouts, but if forced to trade in my Takács at gunpoint I could easily live with the Keller Quartet. Their third Lento movement is a thing of beauty, but misses the last ounce of sheer purity at figure four, that wonderful sequence in fourths at the Lento assai marking. The Takács win here with a slightly slower, more transcendent tempo, but more importantly, with impeccable tuning.

Every time I come back to apply the litmus test the same result returns. The Takács come out with the deeper purples, the richer aromas, the greater confrontation with the uncompromising quality of these pieces. The Kellers have a purer sound which some will find more appealing, but when the crunch really hits it is the Takács that make one’s hair stand on end. Picking out the frightening opening to the fourth quartet, the Takács’ notes are like needles under the skin; the Keller’s apply more of a raking fork – painful yes, but less disturbing in the long run.

Having a look at the Fifth quartet against the Alban Berg quartet’s recording one comes up again with that slight lack of boldness and grit in the Keller’s performance. Their unisono playing and refinement is impeccable, but the Berg’s urgency and drive in the opening is hard to resist. The Keller’s rhythmic swing later on in this first movement is superb however, so again one is playing at the fairground – swings and roundabouts. One of my favourite movements is the second Adagio molto with ‘that chorale’. I’m a fool for chorales mixed with smidges of extra polytonality. The first time I heard the Takács recording my skin moved clockwise by at least an inch. The Keller Quartet does a good job too, but for some reason my skin stayed put this time. I like the swing of that Scherzo though, and the cellist of the Keller seems to have more fun with it than that of the Takács.

With the Sixth quartet the Takács’ poise and authoritatively meaty melancholy are hard to beat. The Kellers make a passionate and emotive plea but again, stuck without any alternative I would be truly happy to live with this recording. Checking back with the Takács constantly reminds me how much more there is to this music though. They convince by not only putting more meat on the bones, but by rummaging deeper into the lonely, lovely skeleton of this music.

If you have a serious budget crisis and simply must have all of the Bartók Quartets by tomorrow evening these recordings will in no way disappoint. I commend them for their accuracy and warmly polished sound. You may even find they supplant your current favourite, and at these prices you can afford to take a chance. I have recently checked online, and find the Takács set now available at round ₤12 in one place. Oh well, if the Keller Quartet by some chance doesn’t thrill, at least you have an advance quality stocking-filler for some cultured relative. They are certainly on a par with, say, the Alban Berg quartet’s 1987 recording on EMI, and at the very least the Kellers get by far the better ‘invisible mending’ treatment when it comes to editing.

Dominy Clements





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