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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No. 1, Op.7 (1908-9) [28:51]
String Quartet No. 2, Op.17 (1915-17) [25:35]
String Quartet No. 3 (1927) [14:29]
String Quartet No. 4 (1928) [22:52]
String Quartet No. 5 (1934) [31:19]
String Quartet No. 6 (1939) [27:50]
Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967)
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 2 (1909) [38:00]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 (1918) [16:22]
Alexander Quartet: Zakarias Grafilo (violin 1), Frederick Lifsitz (violin 2), Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello)
rec. 24-27 June and 1-5 July 2012, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2009 [3 CDs: 74:53 + 76:30 + 54:32]

The Alexander String Quartet’s (ASQ) Shostakovich on Foghorn Classics is still one of my top references (see review), and I enjoy returning to their Beethoven recordings from time to time. They have since revisited Beethoven in a more recent recording on Foghorn (see review). A complete recording of the Bartók quartets was not something I wanted to miss, and with the added temptation of the relatively neglected Kodály quartets the attractions were too many to resist.

Similarly packaged to the Shostakovich quartets, Foghorn Classics has given this set a desirable double-gatefold package and substantial booklet notes by Eric Bromberger. The recordings are vibrant and colourful, with plenty of detail in a realistic perspective and effective separation between the instruments, a crucial element in music where internal dialogues and responses are often such a potent effect. The church acoustic participates subtly, adding an appealing resonance which enhances an appreciation of these remarkable works.
Bartók’s string quartets are amongst the most superb and striking of the entire 20th century, and the ASQ does them proud in these performances. They nail the heightened folk-music intensity of a movement such as the finale of the String Quartet No. 3, and the sheer mass which opens the String Quartet No. 5 has an almost orchestral weight. Subtleties and those glorious nocturnal atmospheres which Bartók creates, extremes of colour and shading in the sound in all dynamics, the Alexander Quartet lives and breathes every aspect of this music as if their lives depended on it.
There is a great deal of competition in these works, and each time I have to make comparisons it is always the Takács Quartet on Decca 455 297-2 to which I return. This recording now seems only to be available on download but it remains a powerful reference, the players really breathing as one and creating performances which are hard to beat. As for American quartets, you will wonder if the Emerson Quartet on DG 477 6322 is preferable to the ASQ, and my answer to that would be a pretty emphatic no. I’ve had this set around for a while but have never warmed to its more spiky aggression. The Hagen Quartet is another DG competitor (see review), to which I’ve only listened through online streaming. I’m generally a big fan of the Hagen Quartet and they are brilliant in their Bartók - ranking above the Emersons in my opinion, but there are some OTT elements and an unrelenting earnestness in their playing which makes me suspect I would become tired of the thing after a while.
I think if this was a merely technical battle then the Takács Quartet would still win, though not by a huge margin. Where passages are more exposed the ASQ has a marginally looser touch, more individual character in the players coming through rather than that ‘quartet-unit’ tightness which the Takács has perfected so well. This is less a disadvantage than a remark in passing, and your taste may take you more towards the sometimes more intimate feel of the ASQ. There are certainly few if any technical weaknesses in their performances of these most demanding works of the quartet repertoire. The energy and commitment, as well as the lyrically tender emotive power of the music has rarely sounded more convincing. As with the Takács Quartet the ASQ recording places odd numbered quartets on disc 1, the even numbers on disc 2. This makes for a satisfying mix, and you can of course do your own chronological mixing and matching - I wouldn’t recommend sitting through the entire set in one go in any case. These quartets are like good poems - you want to put them down and reflect on them after listening properly rather than pushing through the whole lot, a marvellous experience though this can be.
Zoltan Kodály’s two string quartets are a good deal less familiar to me, and if you try to find them in a general search online you will be inundated by recordings of other composers made by the Kodály String Quartet for the Naxos label. The String Quartet No. 2 has appeared in recordings by the Melos and Hagen Quartets among others, but there were but few discs I could find with both quartets together. There is the Kontra Quartet on BIS-CD-564, which is fine but doesn’t have the detail of the ASQ recording, the instruments set a touch far back in a bathroom acoustic. Centaur Classics has The Audubon Quartet which also sounds a bit vague and tubby. Hungaroton HCD12362 has the Kodály Quartet in a somewhat better setting, and with impassioned performances which rival the ASQ. The ASQ is a touch more compact in the slower movements, such as the Lento assai, tranquillo second movement of the String Quartet No. 1, but this extra forward momentum does the music no harm, and to my mind the lyrical nature of the music has to breathe with this kind of vocal naturalness. Kodály’s first quartet absorbs and recreates Hungarian folk music in an entirely approachable idiom with plenty of youthful amours and technical élan, which makes the vitriol thrown at it by contemporary critics hard to comprehend. The String Quartet No. 2 has no direct quotations of Hungarian folk music, but its character retains a distinctly pungent flavour which could come from virtually nowhere else, though fans of Janáček’s quartets will no doubt enjoy this one as well. Kodály and Janáček share a use of speech patterns in their music, and there are little touches everywhere which suggest some kind of cross-pollination. Both of these quartets are very much worth having, and while they don’t share Bartók’s white-hot creative extremes they are both pieces which reward at every level. If their inclusion is the USP which tips you towards this set rather than a Bartók-only package then let it.
Having lived with this package for some time I have to say it easily passes my ‘desert island’ test: in other words, if all my other versions were dumped onto a desert island and I was left on the mainland with only this one, I would be perfectly happy. The Alexander String Quartet has an eloquence and sense of natural communicativeness which seems to lift a layer of difficulty from these Bartók quartets, perhaps missing the last nth of mysterious worlds I hear with the Takács Quartet, but gaining a warmth of expression which welcomes you in to this world of magic. Yes, brutality and dissonance isn’t shied away from, but neither is it presented as some kind of avant-garde motivational essence for these quartets. The ASQ’s Bartók/Kodály set is very much one to acquire for long-term appreciation.
Dominy Clements