Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No.1, Op. 7, Sz. 40 (1908/09) [30:06]
String Quartet No.2, Op. 17, Sz. 67 (1915/17) [26:03]
Carmina Quartet (Matthias Enderle (violin); Susanne Frank (violin); Wendy Champney (viola); Stephan Goerner (cello))
rec. 13th-16th June 2009 Kasakakeno Hall, Kiryu, Japan
SOLO MUSICA SM 168 [56:09]
The Carmina Quartet originally recorded these two Bartók quartets in 2009 for the Japanese Denon label at the Kasakakeno Hall at Kiryu. Now the quartet has bought the rights to issue the recordings internationally on the Solo Musica label. Sadly by only having recorded two Bartók quartets for a single disc the Carmina has given themselves a distinct disadvantage when virtually all of the competition in these scores manages to accommodate all six of Bartók’s quartets on just two discs.
The series of six String Quartets that Bartók wrote between 1908 and 1939 is generally considered to be the most important of the twentieth century and amongst the most significant in the whole repertoire. I can see how it is possible to view the set as chronologically mirroring the development of Bartók’s musical career. From the time of their composition they have been regarded as amongst the most austere and challenging imaginable; frequently incomprehensible to the mainstream listener. From my recent experience at attending a large number of recitals a Bartók quartet when programmed can still send shock waves through an audience used to the more traditional repertoire. Having said all that the late quartets of Beethoven are not always easy for audiences and they were written almost two hundred years ago.
Completed in 1909 the String Quartet No.1 is the most Romantic of Bartók’s quartets. Whilst a piano teacher at the Budapest Academy of Music Bartók composed the score it seems in the wake of his infatuation with a violin student Stefi Geyer. Cast in three movements the writing shows the remaining influence of the music of Mahler and Strauss suffused with the traditional folk music he was collecting. In the Lento the playing evoked a cold, bleak and inhospitable landscape laid to waste. Notable in the questioning central movement are the episodes of increased weight and tempi that appear wave after wave. After the rhythmic opening section of the unsettling final movement from 1:37 the strings saw and gnaw away. The calmer state that develops soon gives way to agitation. Throughout the work compared to the Takács Quartet on Decca the Camina adopts a generally slower tempo with reduced extremes of dynamic. 

A product of the unfolding horrors of the Great War years the three movement String Quartet No.2 was composed in 1915/17 at Rákoskeresztúr, Budapest. At this time Bartók was working on his ballet The Wooden Prince. In the opening Moderato the Carmina communicate an eerie sense of mystery. The spiky rhythms of the central movement are notable and the concluding movement Lento has a shadowy character redolent of wilderness and isolation.
The Bartók quartetsare extremely well served in the record catalogues. There are several complete sets that I am pleased to have in my collection. My first choice by some distance is the Takács Quartet who provides thrilling and raw-edged performances of great intensity and power. Recorded in 1996 at Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany the Takács are recorded to demonstration standard and the double set is available on Decca 445 297-2. The Emerson Quartet has strength, passion and excitement, displaying great virtuosity. Recorded in 1988 this Emerson set won a Grammy award and a Gramophone ‘Record of the Year’ award in 1989 on Deutsche Grammophon 423 657-2. It was reissued in 2007 on 477 6322. Recorded in 2007 at the Potton Hall, Suffolk the Belcea Quartet communicates strongly with precision and spirit. The Belcea are on EMI Classics 3 94400 2. Other splendid versions of the complete quartets include the Alban Berg on EMI playing with energy, fire and significant skill. Their set was recorded in 1987 on EMI Double Forte 7 47720-8 and re-issued on EMI Gemini 3609472. On Naxos the Vermeer play with skill and vigour, although taking a less raw-edged approach than many rivals. The Vermeer were recorded at Ontario, Canada in 2001/04 on Naxos 8.557543-44.
The Carmina Quartet on Solo Musica is vividly recorded with exceptionally close sound. At times it feels as if one is in the same room as the players. I wasn’t too impressed with the documentation which could have been a lot more detailed. These two Bartók Quartets are splendidly performed. However, the Decca set of the complete quartets from the Takács Quartet is definitely the one to have.
Michael Cookson
Splendidly performed.