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Availability - Pristine Classical
PACM089a PACM089b PACM089c
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet no.1, op.7 (1909) [31:13]
String Quartet no.2, op.17 (1915-17) [28:48]
String Quartet no.3, BB 93 (1926) [15:09]
String Quartet no.4, BB 95 (1927) [23:05]
String Quartet no.5, BB 110 (1934) [30:04]
String Quartet no.6, BB 119 (1939) [28:51]
Juilliard String Quartet (Robert Mann (violin), Robert Koff (violin), Raphael Hillyer (viola), Arthur Winograd (cello))
rec. 30th Street Studio, New York, March, May, August 1949.  
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM089a/b/c [59:56 & 38:33 & 59:08]

These are new restorations by Andrew Rose for Pristine Audio of the Juilliard String Quartet's famous first cycle of Bartók's six string quartets. The three CDs can be obtained separately or as a boxed set attracting a not overly generous 10% discount (PACM089). The Juilliard Quartet (JSQ) was three years old when these recordings were made in 1949 - note, not 1950 as is often reported (in the New York Times' obituary of Robert Koff, for example), that being the date of their first release in the USA on Columbia in LP (ML-4278, 4279, 4280) and 78rpm formats.
Collectors may well already have these recordings, in different re-masterings, in their library: using restorations by Lani Spahr. West Hill Radio Archive released them as part of a six-CD JSQ boxed set only a couple of years ago (WHRA6040) - see review. The recording date is correctly listed there as 1949, though the reviewer still gives 1950 in the text. The big - huge, in fact - difference Andrew Rose has made is to 'widen' the mono recording out, using the latest technology, to create an astonishingly vivid stereo effect. This is Pristine's much-vaunted 'Ambient Stereo' which, it must be said, almost literally adds an extra dimension to the JSQ's gripping performances.
The only complaint as far as the audio is concerned is the sudden drop-off of sound between movements. This presumably is done to excise background hiss and any other extraneous noise. The fade to digital silence is certainly abrupt, and something of a jolt. The natural-sounding stereo might have been better served by the substitution of some quietened background noise cut from somewhere else in the recording. The effect is only brief, however, and in each case the music is soon back under way.
On the subject of which, writing in The Gramophone in 1950, American critic Harold Schonberg characterised Bartók's quartets thus: "lyricism, moments of frighteningly concentrated savagery, Hungarian tunes nightmarishly distorted, late Beethoven, polyphony, almost insuperable technical complications, a mighty rhythmic pulse, shocking dissonance, uncanny sounds and tonal juxtapositions, enormous string glissandos. But above all there was strength and imagination and feeling." Many will still share this view, but also agree with his closing remark: "They are great music, really great music". 

With very little to separate the leading quartets in this repertoire, how the three Juilliard cycles on record rank in the pantheon may well come down to taste. The Tokyo, Takács, Emerson, Hungarian, Guarneri, Alban Berg and Hagen Quartets all have their staunch devotees. It should be noted however that true audiophiles will not be happy with the compression applied to the recordings by the Végh, Emerson, Hungarian and indeed Takács Quartets as well as quite a few others. Many of these venerated recordings are in the hands of the multinationals (EMI/Sony/DG/Decca) whose dedication to superlative audio quality is not always self-evident. Moreover, those averse to the affected air-gulping that many quartet musicians indulge in will bridle at some of the same sets. 

As far as the present performances are concerned, their artistic value was already recognised by critics in the ’Fifties. In The Gramophone's review of the set's UK release in 1955, it said: "There is a warmth of tone and a sympathy about the Juilliard’s performance which, if it rather tones down the barbaric element occasionally, heightens the music’s expressive quality: the forceful sections are not allowed to assault our ears too mercilessly [...] Connoisseurs of ensemble playing will admire the unfailing unanimity of thought and execution apparent here: such passages as the pp prestissimo ending of the second movement of No. 2 are a real tour de force." In 1949 the JSQ could not be described as totally polished, but for excitement and commitment they were practically unassailable.
Though all original JSQ members ultimately went their own ways, they all enjoyed long lives. Robert Koff sadly died in his eighties in 2005, Arthur Winograd and Raphael Hillyer in their nineties in 2010. JSQ founder Robert Mann, however, is ninety-three and still alive: how nice it would be if he could hear his ensemble's pioneering recording in even greater glory.
As far as the accompanying booklets are concerned, suffice to say that the entire budget appears to have gone on the re-mastering: the folded sheet of paper, blank on the inside, that passes for a booklet is decidedly unimpressive. In fact, the three leaflets are all but identical, with only the back inlay track-listing showing any tangible difference. The "full programme notes" which "can be found online" are just a clutch of reviews and links to Wikipedia and the International Music Score Library Project.
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