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Béla Bartók, born in 1881, is considered by many to be the greatest Hungarian composer as well as one of the most significant musical voices of the 20th century. Self-taught and originally trained as a pianist, he combined elements of his homelands traditional folk music with the influences of his contemporaries to produce a highly distinctive, immediately recognisable style. Bartoks six string quartets, to which this 2CD compilation is dedicated, represent a milestone in the history of the genre and provide a unique insight into the way the composers musical language developed over four decades. Its a fascinating stylistic journey, beginning with the First Quartet of 1907 a work very much in the shadow of late Beethoven. Moving onto the Second (1917), written during a period of intense musical isolation, we encounter the influences of Strauss, Debussy and late Schoenberg before being subjected to the full-scale expressionism of the Third and Fourth Quartets (1927 and 1928 respectively). The Fifth, composed six years later, adopts a five-movement arch-like structure and is a strong contrast to the Sixth and final Quartet of 1938: deeply reflective and pessimistic in tone, this was to be Bartoks last work before fleeing to the US to escape the spectre of fascist Europe. Together with driving rhythms, sharp dissonances and even quarter tones, this cycle presents a huge challenge musically and technically to even the most accomplished quartets. The Guarneri, however, is on fine form here and delivers a first-rate performance brimming with character. A gem of a recording.
The Guarnari's Bartok strikes a balance between percussive energy and mournful introversion. Performance **** Recording *** --BBC Music Magazine, June'12
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Because these quartets are at the heart of the contemporary quartet literature, they've been recorded many times by many groups, either individually or as a whole collection. The Arditti quartet has a stunning 4th, and the Juilliard Quartet's complete set is impossible to beat. Into this crowded field comes this reissue of the Guarneri Quartet's Bartok set. It was originally released in 1974 and I'm not sure why Sony and Newton Classics have raided their archives to bring it back out at this time. The Guarneri Quartet was an American quartet based largely in New York state, and consisted of Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley on violins, Michael Tree on viola, and David Soyer on cello in this recording. The group mostly recorded the great Romantic quartets, but did occasionally nod toward early 20th century composers like Bartok and Janacek, but they disbanded in 2009. The thing is, recording technology has increased by leaps and bounds, and apparently Sony didn't think it worth investing the time and effort to clean this up. In the fourth quartet particularly, and occasionally in some of the others, there is a lot of background hiss that I found very troublesome. Furthermore, the group is close-miced throughout, which means that the full duration of the pizzicato glissandi can be heard--these normally fade quickly when heard in a concert setting. But it also means that the muted passages don't sound particularly muted, and every breath the players take is captured for all eternity, like a ghostly fifth voice in the ensemble. Perhaps I'm being too picky here, and I can certainly be accused of wanting a mediated experience, but if I`m going to hear a CD instead of a live concert, I want to be able to concentrate totally on the music. If, for example, you listen to the very beautiful and haunting Adagio molto from Bartok's 5th Quartet, you hear lovely layering of sumptuous chords after a fragmented, against which a violin slowly moves, somewhat out of key. And you'll also hear breathing and a chair creaking, so much so that with a good stereo you can even tell which player is breathing!
Whether or not you are bothered by the extraneous noises, I think we can agree that the effect of the playing is very moving--but is it moving enough? Bartok marked the tempo Adagio molto--very slow--and it seems to brush past at almost an andante. It's all too casual for me, and other interpretations less so--the Emerson quartet plays so slowly they add another minute on to the Guarneri's 5 minute version! There's an intensity, a desperation, and a stillness that the Guarneri never quite achieve, This music cries out to us, sometimes screams, sometimes sobs, sometimes laughs and sometimes dances, and with the Guarneri, it's all rather reserved, and even in one shocking moment, quite out of tune. I must admit that the three earlier quartets come off somewhat better, but it's the 4th, 5th, and 6th that are considered not only Bartok's greatest achievements, but some of the greatest chamber music yet written. I love the Bartok quartets, but I can't really recommend this recording. It's not horrible, but it doesn't glow the way the music deserves.