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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No. 5 (1934) [28:49]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
String Quartet No. 4, Op.22 (1921) [21:45]
Zehetmair Quartet: (Thomas Zehetmair (violin); Kuba Jakowicz (violin); Ruth Killius (viola); Ursula Smith (cello))
rec. June 2006, Kulturbuhne Ambach, Götzis, Austria. DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 1874 [50:57]

It is now over five years since the Zehetmair Quartet released their successful ECM début disc of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 and Hartmann’s String Quartet No.1 and two years since garnering great acclaim with their recording of Schumann’s String Quartets No.1 and No. 3. Now with a new line-up, they return to twentieth century repertoire with two gems from the intense turmoil of the inter-war years.

The Zehetmairs’ 1999 recording of the of the Bartók String Quartet No. 4 and Hartmann’s String Quartet No.1 was their ECM debut release. A winner of the quarterly German Record Critics’ Prize, it is available on ECM New Series 1727. Their 2004 release of Schumann String Quartets No.1 and No. 3 on ECM 1793 was highly acclaimed receiving Gramophone’s Record of the Year Award, the Diapason d’Or, the Edison Classical Music Award (Netherlands), and two Belgian awards: the Caecilia Prize and the Klara Prize for the year’s best international release. Since their Schumann disc the Zehetmairs have undergone personnel changes with the second violinist Kuba Jakowicz and cellist Ursula Smith joining the group in 2005. In rehearsal and recital the Zehetmairs play the music from memory asserting, “a greater freedom and a different quality of communication”. It “allows us to create an even larger overview of the whole piece.”
Bartók and Hindemith were undoubtedly two of the finest and most significant composers of the twentieth century. Both were, in fact, concert soloists and chamber musicians. Bartók has retained a most enthusiastic set of admirers with numerous recordings of his work available, whilst the music of Hindemith has had less success and seems to be out of vogue.

Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5, composed in 1934 as the result of a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, was duly premičred by the Kolisch Quartet the next year in Washington D.C. Cast in five movements it is the longest of his string quartets, marking Bartók’s return to a generally more consistent tonality. The score is designed in an arch form, set out symmetrically around the central pivotal movement, marked Scherzo, Alla bulgarese
My preferred version of the Fifth Quartet is the robust and thrilling performance from the eminent Takács Quartet. Recorded to demonstration standard in Germany in 1996 the double set is available on Decca 445 297-2 (as part of the Bartók 6 String Quartets).
Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 4, Op.22 is sometimes referred to as his third Quartet. This is frequently confusing and one reference book that I saw mixes up their critical appraisals of the third and the fourth Quartets. The Quartet No. 4 marks Hindemith’s development between Expressionism and neo-Classicism. Cast in five-movements, in an arch-like design, the first movement merges with the second and also the fourth movement with the fifth. It was premičred in 1922 at the contemporary music haven of the Donaueschingen Festival in Baden-Baden.
Quartet leader and founder Thomas Zehetmair remarks that, “Hindemith’s quartets are not really well-known, not even in Germany.” Last year the Zehetmairs performed the second movement of the Hindemith Fourth Quartet a couple of times as an encore without announcing its identity. According to Thomas Zehetmair no one guessed it was by Hindemith. Many thought it was by Sándor Veress with others wondering if it was another Bartók movement. Evidently Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet was the showpiece of the legendary Amar Quartet (aka the Amar-Hindemith Quartet in which Hindemith played viola) who performed it in recital well over one hundred times. It became their most frequently performed score.
I am aware of, but have yet to hear, the 2006 release of Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 4 from the Pacifica Quartet. Their disc is titled ‘Declarations: Music Between the Wars on Cedille Records CDR 90000 092 (c/w Janáček String Quartet No. 2, ‘Intimate letters’ and Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet).
The Zehetmair Quartet is in consistently fine form. Their security of ensemble is of a generally high standard and it feels as if the players are aiming for technical perfection yet still managing to probe with assurance for additional insight. In Bartók’s Fifth Quartet their interpretations cannot match the additional energy, sheer strength and emotional intensity of the Takács Quartet (Decca).  
With a meagre playing time of just over fifty minutes this ECM disc could easily have been made more competitive by accommodating another work, such as the Schulhoff String Quartet No. 1 (1924); the Weill String Quartet (1923) or maybe another quartet from Bartók or Hindemith.
The sound quality from the ECM engineers is excellent but I didn’t care too much for the demanding essay in the booklet. It left me wanting more information about the actual scores.
These examples of twentieth century chamber repertoire from Bartók and Hindemith are not heard often enough. Many will find this pioneering music reasonably challenging but the rewards will more than compensate with repeated hearings.
Michael Cookson


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