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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No.1, Op.7 (1908-9) [32:35]
String Quartet No.2, Op.17 (1915-17) [29:07]
String Quartet No.3 (1927) [15:36]
String Quartet No.4 (1928) [22:35]
String Quartet No.5 (1934) [31:27]
String Quartet No.6 (1939) [30:49]
Lindsay String Quartet
rec. 1981, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London.
ELOQUENCE 484 3693 [3 CDs: 162:36]

Considered by many to be the equivalent in stature of Beethoven’s in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Bartók’s string quartets certainly stand somewhere at the top of the pile when it comes to 20th century chamber music, and every serious music fan should own a set of good recordings of these works. They are not for casual listening, but nor are they particularly gnarly or truly ‘difficult’ in their intellectual complexity, being filled with stunning beauty and jaw-dropping technique and inventiveness - music that you will need to spend time with and to focus on, but that will reward every effort you put into it.

There’s a big chance you know all this already, and if you do there’s also a big chance you already have one or more sets of these quartets in your collection. These are not hard to come by these days, but this recording with the Lindsay String Quartet has been unavailable for many years, and Decca Eloquence has made a canny move in re-releasing them now. The first digital recording of a complete Bartók string quartet cycle, it was recorded in 1981 and originally released on the ASV label in 1988, also on three discs, but with the order of quartets 4 and 5 reversed. The recording was regarded as a landmark in many ways. It came after a decade of concert performances, marked by intensive study in Hungary together with string players who knew the Bartók style intimately. The acoustic of Rosslyn Hill Chapel in north London is an ideal environment, and with Tony Faulkner as balance engineer you always knew you were going to get excellent sound. The quartet’s leader Peter Cropper outlined the group’s performing philosophy at the time: “We did it because we loved it, and I think it came across. I don’t say it was always immaculate. Who wants perfection?” This reflects some of the atmosphere of live performance preserved in the energy and general ‘vibe’ of the recording, but having rediscovered these performances I don’t hear many more imperfections when compared to versions made since.

The ultimately exultant romance of the First Quartet is always the best introduction to any recorded cycle, and the Lindsay quartet’s playing is both warm and affectionate, but with a probing edge that keeps us attentive and leaning forward into the music. The recordings are listed as having been remastered but the sound quality was always good for these performances, with detail from every player and that halo of acoustic resonance present but by no means swamping the close-up intensity of the listening experience. Expressive depth and poetry are further features in this recording, demonstrated in the Second Quartet, the close-voiced eloquence of its first movement full of passion and heated discourse that is superbly handled here. The peasant roughness of the second movement is tackled head-on, and the darkness and heart-stopping power of the Lento third movement is strikingly portrayed. The Third Quartet with its continuous form and compact intensity is a true marvel, but more abstract than the previous two. The Lindsay quartet has this stuff under their skin, and this is an exciting and confidently assured and needle-sharp performance. The complexities of the Fourth Quartet disguise a clever symmetry, and the remarkable form of the work can be relished along with the virtuosity demanded from the ensemble. This is a fearsome combination of Magyar rhythms and dance energy with a stunningly impassioned Lento at its heart, and once again there is no holding back from the players here. The pizzicato fourth movement is very well done here, and the protean finale is earthily compelling. While by no means a reversal in style, there is a greater feeling of tonal cadence in the dramatic Fifth Quartet, with contrapuntal devices and melting-pot of folk-influences at times dialed up even further than in the Fourth Quartet. That beautiful Adagio molto second movement with its time-stopping polytonal melody-over-resting-chords thing is very well done here. With the Sixth Quartet there is a resolution towards Bartók’s more ‘classical’ late period, though without much let-up in creative intensity. There is a certain amount of poignancy that may relate to the death of Bartók’s mother in 1939 though, if indeed present, the shadow of war is not as apparent as with Shostakovich’s quartets. There is lyricism without romance, eloquence held in restraint, and sustained tensions win over ebullience.

These three CDs come in a standard jewel case box but are nicely presented and with a different colour for each disc. This is a top notch Bartók string quartet cycle at entry-level price, and as such receives nothing less than a full recommendation from me. If pressed to make a first choice it would still be the Takács Quartet on Decca, though by no means by such a big margin. The Takács’ playing is more Hungarian. They can be symphonically titanic as well as deeply moving and, subjectively of course, their recording hits me anew every time. There are many more to be discovered of course, including the Arcadia Quartet on Chandos (review) which is very fine. Each version shines its own light on these works and allows us to discover new things, but the Lindsay String Quartet can still prove its leading status 40 years after its conception.

Dominy Clements

Performers: Peter Cropper (violin 1), Ronald Birks (violin 2), Roger Bigley (viola), Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)




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