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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet no.1, op.7 (1909) [31:38]
String Quartet no.3, BB 93 (1926) [15:16]
String Quartet no.5, BB 110 (1934) [30:22]
Euclid Quartet (Jameson Cooper (violin I), Jacob Murphy (violin II), Luis Enrique Vargas (viola), Si-Yan Darren Li (cello))
rec. Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana, 13-21 July 2011. ARTEK AR 0060-2 [77:24]
String Quartet no.2, op.17 (1915-17) [26:54]
String Quartet no.4, BB 95 (1927) [22:35]
String Quartet no.6, BB 119 (1939) [29:20]
Euclid Quartet (Jameson Cooper (violin I), Jacob Murphy (violin II), Luis Enrique Vargas (viola), David Beem (cello))
rec. Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Indiana, 10-17 July 2008. ARTEK AR 0053-2 [78:49]
Béla Bartók was far-sighted enough to make his six string quartets exactly the right length so that, if split into odds and evens, they would fit onto two CDs. Some of the many quartets that have recorded the complete cycle have also grouped 1, 2 and 4. The America-based Euclid Quartet's configuration has the advantage of retaining the chronology whilst inserting 'gaps' that produce the intriguing variety that comes from artistic leaps - a decade between quartets on volume 1, and a quarter of a century separating first and last works on volume 2.
It would be nice to think that the Euclid Quartet had named themselves after the great Greek scientist with the explicit intention of exploring the fascination mathematics held for Bartók and other composers. In fact, the origin of their name is more prosaic, taken from Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, once famous for its 'Millionaires' Row', but now merely bland American suburbia. There is nothing remotely bland about the Quartet's music-making, as these two magnificent discs reveal.
However, in these most exacting of repertoire works they are up against the Juilliard, Tokyo, Takács, Emerson, Hungarian, Guarneri, Alban Berg and Hagen Quartets - for starters. The cover photos reveal that the 'Euclideans' measure up in presentational terms - there may yet be a niche for a scruffy quartet. However, is there anything in these recordings that might give them an edge and persuade the newcomer to choose them over better-known cognates, or the proud owner of Tokyo and Takács cycles to part with more cash?
The short answer is: maybe. Volume 2's biography of the Quartet cites a Gramophone review of the first, according to which their artistry "brings fresh perspectives to cornerstones of the quartet repertoire." Certainly, the ensemble are all young enough to play with a good amount of youthful vigour and enthusiasm. Their multinational cosmopolitanism too is clearly part of their 21st-century appeal. True, their team contains no Hungarians with Bartók's beloved folk tunes in their blood, but then nowadays even the Takács Quartet is only 50% Magyar.
In fact there is very little to separate the leading quartets in this repertoire, so high is the quality. For their part, the Euclids are as technically superb, texturally lucid and expressively insightful as any. Bartók himself would surely have been impressed, if not amazed, at the way they bring these hugely demanding works to life. In the end it may come down to two things. First, price, which is where the Euclids drop off the pace. Until such time as a double-disc version is released, each Artek CD costs as much as most of the competitors' two-for-ones. Second, audio quality, where the Euclids now surge easily ahead of the Végh, Emerson, Hungarian and indeed Takács - as well as quite a few others. Artek's venue is a reverberant one, for sure, but this only adds to the spooky atmosphere of some passages of Bartók's music. Any airiness is in any case held in check by an intimate stereo, which does not, by way of bonus, allow any musician's air-gulping to trespass on the music. Again this is in contradistinction to several other recordings.
Artek's booklets are more prosaic. Without preamble, Barbara Heninger's volume 1 notes get straight down to the business of describing the quartets. Ditto violinist Jameson Cooper's in volume 2, but his notes are more than twice as long and offer that bit more detail, albeit without much personal perspective.
Overall, however, this Euclids' orchard bears big juicy fruits, to which music-lovers should help themselves without further ado.