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Bela BARTÓK (1881 - 1945)
String Quartet No. 1 Sz40 (op. 7) [30:48]
String Quartet No. 2 Sz67 (op. 17) [26:49]
String Quartet No. 4 Sz91 [21:17]
String Quartet No. 3 Sz85 [15:00]
String Quartet No. 5 Sz102 [30:40]
String Quartet No. 6 Sz114 [28:40]
Guarneri Quartet (Arnold Steinhardt (violin I); John Dalley (violin II); Michael Tree (viola); David Soyer (cello))
rec. 20 December 1974, 14-15 January 1975 (Sz67); 15-17 March 1976 (Sz91); 20 May 1976 (Sz85); 25-26 May, 4 June 1976 (Sz102); 29 November, 13 December 1976 (Sz40); 13-14, 17 December 1976 (Sz114), New York City
Full track list at end of review
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802111 [76:28 + 76:52]
Bartók’s six quartets span a period of thirty years, No. 1 completed in January 1909 and No. 6 in November 1939. The latter was the last work he wrote in Hungary before he had to flee to the US. Structurally as well as harmonically they differ a lot from each other. The first of them is obviously modelled after Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet with elaborate contrapuntal writing in the first movement. The finale clearly points forward with folksy rhythms and barbaric harmonies. No. 2 is rather Debussian in character and generally speaking this is the most accessible of the six. The second movement, ‘a kind of rondo’ as the composer described it in a letter, is truly entertaining and finds Bartók in uncommonly high spirits. Both Nos. 3 and 4 are supposed to have been inspired by Bartók hearing Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. Nos. 4 and 5 are both in arch form and in No. 5 we find a middle movement in Bulgarian folk music style, rhythmically intense and syncopated, surrounded by two slow movements in what some commentators tend to call Bartók’s night music style. The probably best known example of this is the slow movement of his third piano concerto. The sixth quartet is unique insofar as each of the four movements opens with a slow melody marked mesto which is followed by a livelier portion. He breaks this pattern in the last movement where the mesto material occupies the whole movement. According to his sketches he had intended to finish with a dance-like finale but when he learnt about his mother’s death he wrote an elegy instead. This is one of the most moving things he ever composed.
The American Guarneri was founded in 1964 and disbanded as recently as 2009. During these 45 years there was only one change of members, when the cellist David Soyer withdrew in 2001 and Peter Wiley took over. Their discography is certainly comprehensive and covers many of the standard works - also works for other constellations, where they cooperated with musicians like Rubinstein, Zukerman, Peter Serkin, Emanuel Ax and Leonard Rose - but also of music off the beaten track: Ernö Dohnányi and Hans Werner Henze, for instance. The present set was recorded during a period of two years in the mid-1970s.
The playing here is highly professional, though occasionally I feel a certain shallowness in the readings, in particular the Adagio molto of the fifth quartet. This hymn is, like the finale of the sixth quartet, utterly moving but in this recording it never gets time to settle, to flower. It is not hushed enough and not enough adagio. In general terms though these are solid readings and someone buying his/her first Bartók set will find a lot to admire.
There is a problem even so. The recording. It is very close and the listener gets the impression of sitting at only arm’s-length distance. There are gains: one doesn’t miss a detail in the music but one also gets details that are not in the music. Every little extraneous noise is registered with amazing clarity: a creaking chair, feet scratching against the floor and - a constant ingredient - the breathing of the players. Also the closeness means that there is an aggressive tone, also in the soft music, a tone you wouldn’t notice in a concert hall. For repeated listening - and I believe most music lovers buy discs to play them more than once - this can be an irritant.
There are many sets with far better sonics and artistically even finer. The Emerson Quartet on DG is possibly the best buy and it shouldn’t be so much more expensive. I have an old favourite from my earliest years as record collector, and that is the Fine Arts Quartet. Issued by Saga somewhere in the 1960s on rather noisy but inexpensive LPs, this was a set to cherish. I am not alone in feeling that way. My LPs are worn out but the recordings are available on CD. I have to buy them!
The Guarneri set is run-of-the-mill, often even more than that, but the sonics are troublesome.
Göran Forsling 
Full track list 
CD 1 [76:28]
String Quartet No. 1 Sz40 (op. 7)
1. Lento [9:27]
2. Poco a poco accelerando all’ Allegretto - [8:37]
3. Introduzione: Allegro - Allegro vivace - Adagio - Tempo I [12:44]
String Quartet No. 3 Sz85
4. Prima parte: Moderato [4:56]
5. Seconda parte: Allegro - [5:26]
6. Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato [2:50]
7. Coda: Allegro molto [1:48]
String Quartet No. 5 Sz102
8. Allegro [7:26]
9. Adagio molto [5:06]
10. Scherzo: Alla bulgarese [5:23]
11. Andante[5:47]
12. Finale: Allegro vivace [6:58]
CD 2 [76:52]
String Quartet No. 2 Sz67 (op. 17)
1. Moderato [9:57]
2. Allegro molto capriccioso [7:45]
3. Lento [9:07]
String Quartet No. 4 Sz91
4. Allegro [5:18]
5. Prestissimo, con sordino [2:44]
6. Non troppo lento [5:02]
7. Allegretto pizzicato [2:51]
8. Allegro molto [5:22]
String Quartet No. 6 Sz114
9. Mesto - Vivace [7:12]
10. Mesto - Marcia [7:48]
11. Mesto - Burletta (Moderato) [6:50]
12. Mesto - Molto tranquillo [6:56]