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.
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
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.