BARTOK & KODALY: The Complete String Quartets –  Alexander String Q. – Foghorn Classics CD2009 (3 CDs), TT: 3:26:05 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:

If ever an album had “Grammy nominee” written on its front cover, this is it. There have only been a handful of “complete” Bartok quartets recordings that one can call “legendary”—the 1963 Juilliard, 1998 Takacs, and the 1988 Emerson—but without doubt these new readings will ascend quickly to that exalted status. Astoundingly enough, I know of only one other recording of the two Kodaly quartets—by the Kodaly Quartet on Hungaraton from 1995—and the inclusion of these two wonderful works more than doubles the value of this set.

Bartok and Kodaly have been acclaimed hand-in-hand for years, and as both were professors at the Academy of Music in Budapest the lock-step is quite apropos. In fact, the first quartets by each were premiered in 1910 only weeks apart, and though Bartok was the one who would extend and perfect the form over the course of his career (1909-41), Kodaly’s two are hardly anything to sneeze at, in many ways as modern and demonstrably new as Bartok’s were considered to be at the time, though also with a “softer” touch to them—as indeed, one could consider all of Kodaly’s music to be a little more accessible in tone and harmonically more “agreeable”, for want of a better word. Both quartets make heavy use of the Hungarian folk element, though it is interesting to note that when they each appeared the critics, unable to discern the heavy classical structure underneath, decried Kodaly as a harmonic “heretic”, abandoning tradition altogether! Today we marvel at this assessment, as, especially when compared to the Bartok series, they seem rather mild.

Then again, Bartok’s do also, after years of acceptance. They too at the time—a rather long time actually—were considered the height of acerbic and dissonant modernism, and I remember well my own reaction to them when first encountered in my first year of college, thinking them too angular and unremittingly astringent to get much pleasure out of them, though I wonder what I was thinking now, not so much because they really aren’t like that, but as the Third Quartet by Elliot Carter was making waves at the time, even receiving accolades (myself included!), how could that bucket of bristles be more congenial than any of Bartok’s? Ah youth! Today I see them as the folk-based pieces they really are, though now infused with drama, pathos, and full of tender moments of the most exquisite beauties you will ever encounter. Some think that as time went on Bartok’s quartets got even drier and more difficult but this is simply not the truth. For one who listens properly, and with a sense of history and continuity, it is easy to understand why these works are legitimately considered the model heirs of Beethoven’s genius—though I am sure Shostakovich might have something to say about that as well.

In this new recording the Alexander String Quartet, in residence since 1989 at the San Francisco State University, touches all the bases in an unqualified Grand Slam. With the precision of the old Juilliard recording, the unassailable projection and boldness of the Emerson, and the heartbreaking delicacy of the Takacs, they capture every memorable moment of these eight quartets with an authority and finesse virtually unmatched. And they do so in sound that is surely the best these quartets have ever gotten. It’s not SACD—and that of course is to be lamented, as the quartets have never been issued complete in this format—but the radiant sonic beauty of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, CA., are presented in a sound sketch of supreme warmth, clarity, and wide dynamic range. Absolutely essential for anyone remotely caring about this music.

—Steven Ritter