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CD: Foghorn Classics


Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Quartet No 6 Sz 114 (1939) [29.47]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet (1904) [30:29]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well Tempered Clavier, Book II (1738-42) – Fugue No.7 in E flat BWV 876 (arr. WA Mozart) [2:58]
Alexander String Quartet
rec. Jackson Hall at The Robert and Margrit Mondavi Centre for the Performing Arts, Davis, California, June 2003
Experience Classicsonline

It’s by no means common to juxtapose a Bartók quartet with Ravel. Nor is it all that common to hear Mozart’s exploration of Bach in this context. The theory behind it, not one taken to didactic extremes I hasten to add, is that of ‘renascence’, the word chosen by sleeve-note writer Eric Bromberger to describe the process by which structural or cyclical themes are used in both the quartets and also to describe Mozart’s recasting into quartet form of a keyboard original.
As noted this is a handy but far from dogmatic pretext to hang on this programme. The Ravel is quite leisurely in the modern manner – gone are the days seemingly when the Bouillon, Capet and Calvet Quartets treated the French repertoire with rather more incisive tempos. A much admired recent recording of the Ravel from the young French Ebčne Quartet shows that their tempos are actually not dissimilar to the Alexander Quartet’s – except in the finale where the French group is much faster; here the Alexander reminds me more actually of the old Capet recording which was equally slow in this particular movement. The main difference however is in bow weight. The Ebčne is much lighter and wristier somewhat in the image of older French groups, whilst the Alexander prefers a heavier corporate sound, a blunter and less tactile approach.  Accents are harder all round, not least in the slow movement, and less rounded. In the context their finale does sound unusually slow and the recording seems to muddy things slightly.
Bartók’s Sixth Quartet makes an interesting point of comparison with groups as disparate as say Juilliard (mark one; 1950) and the recent Belcea account of all six quartets. The Alexander doesn’t over press tempi; they are slower and less gripping than the white hot Juilliard and sound less brusque in the Marcia second movement – those unsympathetic to their warm and finely projected account might think it a little smoothed over in relation to the Juilliard and not as introspective as the Belcea but it  sounds convincing on its own terms.
Finally there is the Bach-Mozart Fugue, a three-minute envoi that wraps up the programme impressively. Or does it? A rogue track has invaded my copy; ‘track ten’ sounds like a few seconds of Californian steamboat life or something.
Jonathan Woolf


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