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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Complete String Quartets
String Quartet No. 1 [29:33]
String Quartet No. 2 [27:02]
String Quartet No. 3 [15:34]
String Quartet No. 4 [24:12]
String Quartet No. 5 [31:36]
String Quartet No. 6 [29:24]
The Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (cello))
rec. 2016, Wigmore Hall, London
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM907661.62 [76:50 + 80:44]

Most music lovers agree that Bartók’s string quartets comprise one of the great monuments of twentieth century chamber music, and they’ve been an Everest that the great quartets have scaled since the composer’s death in 1945 (step forward the Takács, Emersons and Belceas, to give only three prestigious examples).  Their sonic world can be a forbidding one, however, and you need an assured guide to aid you through it.  Step forward, therefore, to join the above illustrious company, the Heath Quartet.  If at first glance you fear that they seem a little young and inexperienced to be assaying this repertoire then put such thoughts from your mind.  They use their youth and vigour to cast a fresh light on these masterpieces, often unearthing things that I’d been aware of only slightly in the past; however, they’re not afraid to plumb the emotional depths, too, and they give us a Bartók cycle for our times.

Key to the success of their set is their careful sensitivity to the music’s many moods, something you pick up right from the beginning of No. 1. Chilly air hangs over “funeral dirge” of the first movement, with playing of intense concentration and searching depth. The cello and viola really saw into the line of their counter-theme, suggesting a whole new layer of depth before the cello’s almost bel canto sounding line afterwards. The ostinato drive that opens the Allegretto has an urgency that is tempered with the plangent wail above it, and the viola’s searching line seems to lead directly into the chaos of the movement’s central section. I loved the way they played the rocking theme that should bring comfort but is quickly blown astray into even deeper psychological turmoil, something the cello’s urgent pizzicati seem to confirm. There is fractured urgency to the start of the finale, and the slower folk theme grants only partial relief. The central section then feels like a rather dark, though zany, chase sequence, the slower sections towards the end bringing only temporary respite. It’s a strident, impassioned reading that lays down a striking calling card and marks a bold statement of intent for the disc.

The second quartet has a sense of struggling to break free.  Throughout the first movement, the first violin seems perpetually to try to break off into a singing legato of his own, but is weighed down by the murky undercurrents that are going on underneath him.  He only partially succeeds towards the end, holding out some hope for what comes next, and they play the chase of the second movement as a cross between a horror film and a Looney Tunes cartoon.  The ghostly finale feels like looking out over a nuclear landscape, and it is given a bravely unremitting reading, with only a few wisps of variety to alleviate the mood.

The tightly structured world of the third quartet conjures playing of intense concentration, particularly in the wispy, nebulous world of the first part, though here they seem a little reluctant to embrace the composer's dynamic extremes.  The busyness of the second part has a slightly manic smile imprinted on it, as though desperately trying to convince itself that there is some reason to be optimistic in the face of the rather grim harmonic mood.  They also play the glissandi of the third part like a drooping grin, and there is a slightly delirious air to the repetitious cyclings of the last part.  In fact, the whole quartet has about it a slight air of madness trying to present its acceptable face to the world, and the effect of the playing is both disturbing and thrilling.

There is a zany energy to the first movement of the fourth quartet that's very appealing, though the thematic unity isn’t always obvious, and I would have liked the cello’s important theme to have sung out a little more prominently in the light of its structural importance. Still, the other instruments seem, at one point around the four-minute mark, to be piloting around the cello in circular motion, and it creates an energy that seems to drive forward to the end of the movement fairly unrelentingly.  The “secret whisperings” of the second movement (to use the words of the booklet note) seem to hover just above ground level but just out of reach, tantalising and thrilling at the same time, and the tiny central idea gets flung around as though the instrumentalists were playing a game with one another.  The textures and atmosphere of the third movement are astonishing, perhaps the most beautiful thing on the disc, with the upper three instruments creating a lovely halo of sound against which the cello sings with anguished intensity, while the central section seems to invoke Bartok’s nature painting, with the chirruping of birds suggested by the upper strings.  The so-called Bartók-pizzicati of the fourth movement punctuate a spectral world of feeling which never really settles, and the fiery energy of the finale takes the thematic material of the first movement and transforms it into a whirling ball of energy that I found really exhilarating.

The fifth quartet feels more taut, both in terms of its structure and its playing, but then its tighter arch structure lends itself more to that.  I loved the grim determination of the way the Heath play the opening, then dissolving into a carefree, almost skittish performance of the second subject and the more sinuous, lyrical third.  There is also a satisfying sense of determination to the movement’s final pages, giving a pleasing sense of journey’s end (for now).  The second movement begins tenderly, but then develops a beautifully expansive air as its main theme develops against the snatched trills and flickers.  The Scherzo has a pleasing lopsided feel to it, becoming faintly sinister in its central section, while the fourth movement, even more than the second, is played with a gossamer lightness that carries suggestions of the composer's mysterious “Night Music”, with little flickers appearing and disappearing from the undergrowth.  The finale, on the other hand, is a perpetuum mobile in the full light of day, swirling through its runs with impressive control.  The Heath manage to retain that control, even as the sense grows that the wheels are coming off the machine, and the introduction of the off-colour folk song towards the end feels natural rather than tacked on.

The Mesto first theme, of such central importance to the sixth quartet, is articulated with exploratory care by Gary Pomeroy’s viola, like a blind man feeling his way towards the doorway, and the rest of the first movement moves in a spidery manner towards a resolution that it never quite manages to find, fading with brilliant poignancy towards the end.  The Scherzo opens begins in a fairly genial manner, but becomes rather frenzied in the central section (agitato indeed!), casting a ghostly shadow over the return of the march theme.   The Mesto theme really comes into its own in the introduction to the third movement, which reaches heights of expansive lyricism that are, perhaps, unmatched elsewhere in the set.  These are then torn to shreds by a Burletta of laconic intensity and a tongue-in-cheek sense of chaos. The Mesto theme then spins a real web both round and through the finale, which moves through moods ranging from anxiety through to tranquillity, and makes a hugely satisfying conclusion to the set, especially when played with such warmth and humane beauty as here.

As I said above, what really makes the Heaths’ playing so involving is that they are uniquely sensitive to Bartók’s changing moods.  The composer swings through such a range of emotions in these works that you need a kaleidoscope of colours to do it justice, but the Heath Quartet’s performing choices always felt right to me, and it’s in the quieter passages that I felt most involved. Yes: they can look the composer’s existential angst unblinkingly in the face, but they can also get to the heart of his conflicted soul, perhaps most convincingly in the sixth quartet, which seems to encompass all of the composer’s angst and uncertainty about the future of his homeland, as well as his own health concerns towards the end of his life.  Of course, it’s easy for us to read this into the music, knowing what we do now, and this isn't the place to discuss how much any of that is really there: the point is that the Heaths’ playing is sensitive and responsive enough to open up those windows of possibility, and they never try to impose a certain template on the notes.

The Takács have been my touchstone in this repertoire up until now and, by a whisker, probably remain so, bringing an air of from-the-source Hungarian intensity that it’d be hard to match, let alone equal. However, the Heath present them anew and freshly invigorated.  Their ambition might even encourage some newcomer listeners to give these quartets a go for the very first time.

Simon Thompson



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