BEETHOVEN: Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74, “Harp”; ARNE NORDHEIM: String Quartet 1956; BARTOK: Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85 – Engegard Quartet – 2L multichannel SACD 071, 76:29 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
This is an album of sprightly and energetic playing, perhaps a little overly-enthusiastic at times, but the music can certainly take it. Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet has long been my favorite of all his quartets, largely because of the unique and rather exotic cadenza in the last bars of the first movement, as virtuoso a passage as any he ever wrote in his quartets, and a thrilling bit of musical invigoration. Despite 2L’s clear and wide ranging SACD sound (which puts an equal amount of emphasis in the back speakers as well—no “ghost” images here) I found this particular passage a little congested and lacking in clarity and strength of line, which was somewhat disappointing, especially when compared to Telarc’s CD Cleveland Quartet recording. But the other movements fare well, and this is a fine recording of this great work.
The “1956” Quartet of Arne Nordheim (b. 1931) is considered his Opus 1, even though he wrote two quartets before it; at this point he had only been composing for six or seven years, and long before his very name became synonymous with harsh and dissonant modern music—and not without some reason! Despite the hints in the notes that Bartok was the inspiration for this, and perhaps coincidentally so, I hear Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet all over this piece. And that is a good thing, considering the loveliness of that little wonder. There is a rare and beauteous contrapuntal starkness about this work that is gripping from beginning to end, and despite the hints of the madness (?) and/or wonders (?) to come (I guess it depends on your viewpoint), it is an easy work to follow. If he had continued solely in this vein I think his name would be household among classical music lovers today.
The Bartok Quartets are often more lauded than loved—all of that stuff about being Beethoven’s true quartet inheritance and whatnot might be true (though Shostakovich and even Villa-Lobos might have something to say about it) but the Third is one that comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly because of the sharply dissonant nature of the piece and its purely aural aspects of exploration of string sound as an end in itself. Fortunately the composer was smart enough to let the piece run only sixteen minutes, and the short duration adds a degree of tolerability to the work. Of course this is relative—compared to what was to come in the quartet world this one strikes us as mild, and Bartok gave each of his quartets a very unique voice. But time and exposure leads to love in this genre, and those put off by this particular work should hear it the way that the Engegard plays it.
As mentioned, the sound is wide-ranging and extravagant, the music very worthy, and the playing, despite my Harp caveats, nicely fashioned.
— Steven Ritter