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It's difficult to imagine that the Paris-based Diotima Quartet were formed way back in 1996; they look so young. They were all graduates of the Paris Conservatoire; the main focus of their attention has been on new music, amassing an impressive and eclectic discography over the years. I first discovered them last year when I acquired their exciting disc of chamber music by Miroslav Srnka, also on the Naďve label.
Like the Beethoven String Quartet cycle, Bartók’s contribution to the genre sits at an elevated peak. Recorded many times, I've come across several outstanding complete sets over the years, including those by the Takács, Tokyo, Alban Berg, Fine Arts and the two Végh Quartet versions. I wouldn’t hesitate to add to the list this newcomer by the Diotima.
There's a deep sense of isolation pervading the Second Quartet, probably reflecting the situation Bartók found himself in at the time of composition. Between 1915-1917 he was living in seclusion outside Budapest. Warmth and desolation imbue the Diotima’s reading of the first movement and they make the Arabian ostinato rhythms of the middle movement a series of vertiginous collisions, both primeval and coruscating. In the ravishing finale we are whisked off to a strange, mysterious world.
The Fourth is equally successful. After a frenzied opener, I love the restless, quirky, rhythmically unstable whisperings of the Prestissimo, con sordino. The players have such flawless dynamic control that the effect is quite thrilling. By contrast, time stands still in the third movement. The pizzicatos are crisp and incisive in the fourth, paving way for an exhilarating and fiery finale. It doesn't get better than this.
Despite the above fact there is fine playing throughout. I would particularly single out the Sixth Quartet, perhaps my favourite of the cycle. Each of the four movements is titled Mesto, and the sad mood, though only providing a brief introduction to the first movement, gradually makes its presence increasingly felt over the subsequent movements. By the finale it is all-consuming. The Diotima fully convey the heart-wrenching sadness and despair, which pervades this work, more than any other ensemble I think I've heard.
The Diotima Quartet certainly live up to their fine reputation with this outstanding well-balanced and warmly recorded cycle. I admire the careful preparation that has gone on behind the scenes and the sheer commitment and conviction they bring to these masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire. For those embarking on these works for the first time, choosing this new cycle will be well rewarded.