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Bela BARTÓK (1881–1945)
Complete String Quartets
String Quartet No. 1, Sz 40 (Op. 7) [31:01]
String Quartet No. 2, Sz 67 (Op. 17) [27:51]
String Quartet No. 3, Sz 85 [15:13]
String Quartet No. 4, Sz 91 [24:04]
String Quartet No. 5, Sz 102 [30:43]
String Quartet No. 6, Sz 114 [30:56]
Romanian Folk Dances, BB 68 (1915) [5:13]*
Arcadia String Quartet
rec. 2017/18, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
* Bonus track (download only)
CHANDOS CHAN10992 [2 CDs: 158:32]

The Arcadia Quartet formed in 2005 while students at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Romania, and have been collecting competition prizes for almost a decade. This is their first recording on Chandos, and you would think there must be safer ways to announce yourself on a major label than the complete string quartets by Bartók. But fortunately their ambition is justified by their achievement. These players explain in a booklet note that they all live in central Transylvania, and they claim his Bartók’s musical roots lie in the region, so feel “a strong affinity with his music and a deep sense that we have something particular to say when playing (it)”.

Certainly the First Quartet’s initial sketches come from the same time as the composer’s first visit to Transylvania, where he encountered pentatonic tunes he thought significantly ancient. But the more familiar background to the music is biographical, connected to his unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer. He told her the opening was a “funeral dirge” and it begins with a pair of falling sixths for the two violins whose unsupported continuation has a deep melancholy in this account, sustained even when the other pair join in and repeat the idea. It’s a haunting entrance to this great cycle and the whole first movement gives the listener confidence that there is no presumption in the Arcadians’ claim to have something to say about the music, which is borne out in the swifter music in the rest of the quartet.

The Second Quartet opens hardly more decisively than No. 1, and the group capture its ambiguities of mood and changes of texture in a way that makes it sound all of a piece and purposeful. It is a sonata form after all, but never quite seems as goal-oriented as that implies. In the second movement they never overemphasise, but keep the chamber scale, where some groups seek to imply a big drama for some larger forces. Those chunky dissonant chords for all the instruments sound just like string chords, not hammer blows. In the third movement, just after three minutes in, the sequence of quiet chords sound poised and perfectly blended. In fact poise and blend are characteristics of this playing virtually throughout.

This might sound underpowered, but they still do full justice to the tauter structures and expressive concentration of the middle quartets. In the Third Quartet, the opening invites us in with its intimacy, without seeking to deny that the world we are entering is at times an abrasive one. But the Arcadians again manage to have it both ways, doing justice to the work’s integration but still making it sound exciting as well as cerebral. The colouristic devices of this once seemingly rebarbative work, the pizzicato, glissando, col legno, and sul ponticello moments, along with an often high norm of dissonance, here sound integral to the composition, not added for effect. The swift fugato with its stream of flying semiquavers is played truly leggierissimo (‘very lightly’) as directed. The Fourth Quartet’s muted prestissimo second movement has the same fleeting, evanescent quality founded on very skilful swift, quiet playing and the long solos for cello and violin in the middle movement are impressive in their sustained concentration.

No. 5 lowers that norm of dissonance, and replaces the harmonic bite of Nos. 3 and 4 with a greater degree of consonance. But there is still plenty of rhythmic snap, and if in the opening phrases the Arcadia is not the snappiest group, they are still metrically exact and do full justice to the Bulgarian dance rhythms of the central scherzo. Each of the four movements of No. 6 is headed Mesto (sad), and opens with melancholy material to which these players sound especially attuned. In the finale that opening mesto mood floods the whole movement, and the Arcadia Quartet responds with a moving threnody in which time stands still. Chandos provide a near ideal sound, atmospheric, not too close, just enough bloom on the string tone, and sufficient weight and presence. Paul Griffiths’ booklet notes manage the tricky balance between explaining what is going on technically in these structures – hard to escape in Bartók’s music - while also guiding the non-expert or first-time listener.

There are so many good recordings of this great cycle now. Among recent ones that from the Heath Quartet (Harmonia Mundi 2017 - review) was widely admired, and classic versions from the Julliard, Tokyo, Emerson, Alban Berg and Takács Quartets will always have many adherents. Yet rarely do the Bartók quartets sound so purely attractive as they do here. And why not? Surely every composer aims to attract not repel. Is it too attractive, too euphonious for the great Hungarian modernist? For some the Arcadia Quartet might just be too civilized. But it is a compelling and very beautiful cycle that elbows its way to a place at the crowded top table.

Roy Westbrook
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month)

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