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
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.