Classical CD Reviews

BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 5 – Euclid Quartet – Artek

There’s always room for one more excellent interpretation of Bartók’s great music for string quartet.

Published on September 6, 2013

BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, BB 52; String Quartet No. 3, BB 93; String Quartet No. 5, BB 110 – Euclid Quartet – Artek AR-0060-2, 77:24 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This recording of the odd-numbered Bartók quartets follows, somewhat belatedly, on the earlier recording (2010) of Quartets 2, 4, and 6. Certainly, performance quality is not the reason for the delay since these are eminently satisfying performances. For me, the heart of Bartók’s production—namely, Quartets 3, 4, and 5—represents the absolute zenith of quartet-writing in the twentieth century. Quartets 1 and 2 are the work of a monumentally gifted composer in search of his true idiom, while Quartet 6, again, is the work of a composer in transition, but this time a master readjusting himself to a new world order that might not even include himself as a participant; he thought at the time that it might be his valedictory. The sardonic Quartet No. 6 is the work of a disillusioned man, a man without a home (since just after writing the quartet in 1939, Bartók reluctantly left Europe for America). Luckily, Bartók was able to re-create himself in his adopted country and managed to produce still more masterworks before his death in 1944.

Be that as it may, dividing Bartók’s quartets, for the purposes of recording, into evens and odds cleverly produces contrasts that make each volume a satisfying self-contained package. Of course, I don’t recommend acquiring just one or the other since coming to terms with the entire canon of Bartók quartets is central to an understanding and appreciation of modern music.

As the notes to the current recording make clear, the First Quartet of 1908–1909 is uncharacteristic of Bartók’s later quartets, even the Second, in its allegiance to the composer’s early musical heroes, Debussy and Ravel. Bartók was becoming a cosmopolite, moving beyond his first influences, Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss, but still, the First Quartet has little in it that commends itself as the work of the mature Bartók. Only in the last movement—which commences with an introduction in “’Magyar’ rhythm (two notes, short-long, with the stress being on the first). . . .” and proceeds to explore folk-inspired, highly rhythmic musical material—do we get an inkling of the Bartók to be.

That composer is fully represented in the Third Quartet, the shortest and most concise of all his quartets, a work that may have helped Bartók transition to his mature compositional style. Not so consequently, the quartet was a contest entry, Bartók having submitted it to a competition held by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia in 1927. (At one time, I scoffed at the idea that Bartók should share the prize with the “unknown” composer Alfredo Casella, but since then I have been chastened by a number of recordings that tend to reinforce Casella’s stature.) In this work, Bartók allied his more primitivistic musical trends of the teens and early twenties with a new-found structural sophistication that produced a work of elemental energy tamed by architectonic rigor. The piece encapsulates features of Bartók’s later compositional style, such as the “night music” of the Moderato third movement, along with the innovations that bring such frisson to his string writing: the frequent use of glissandi, sul ponticello, and col legno.

With the Fifth Quartet of 1934, we have an even further compositional advance, an elaboration of the arch form that Bartók explored in the Fourth Quartet and brought to absolute perfection in the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta of 1936. (As the notes to this recording succinctly explain, “the fast first and fifth movements share material and mood, as do the slow second and fourth, while the central third movement stands alone.”) In the Fifth Quartet, Bartók was already moving toward the greater accessibility of his late compositional style. That includes the universality of the “night music” in the second movement, the friendly folkishness of the Scherzo based on native Bulgarian music, and the comical Allegretto capriccioso section, just before the close of the work, which sounds like a Mozart minuet played by a string quartet whose members have had a few too many.

If I say that the Euclid has given me the opportunity to rediscover this wonderful music, I hope you’ll appreciate that this is high praise indeed. There are a number of fine recordings available, but none that I know of have more of the sense of discovery than these alert, thoroughly alive performances from the Euclid. Rhythms in the faster movements, such as that Scherzo: Alla bulgarese, are razor sharp, while the more inward music of Bartók’s great slow movements have a penetrating intensity that I think is everything the composer envisioned. A nicely balanced recording, as well, from the Sauder Concert Hall of Goshen College. If you’re a Bartók devotee, I think you’ll want to hear this recording and possibly add it to your collection, even if your shelves contain classic renditions such as those from the Emerson (DGG) or Hagen Quartet (Newton Classics).

—Lee Passarella

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