BELA BARTOK: String Quartets Nos. 2, 4, & 6 – Jerusalem Quartet – Harmonia mundi 902235, 78:51 [11/4/16] *****:

(Jerusalem Quartet; Alexander Pavlovsky & Sergei Bresler – violins; Ori Kam – viola; Kyril Zlotnikov – violoncello)

Bartok without flinching.

In March of 2013, the Jerusalem Quartet came to Portland, Oregon and performed the entire cycle of Shostakovich String Quartets over 5 days. They communicated with power and passion the many voices of this most personal of composers. It remains my most indelible musical experience of recent years. The recordings released on Harmonia mundi of the group from about the same time, allow for a repeated investigation of method and message of this ensemble, which surely ranks with the Takacs Quartet at the summit of the business. Of course, one can start with their precision; their ensemble respires and inhales as one fiery beast. But what makes me grab the sleeve of the passer-by with urgency of the Ancient Mariner is the quartet’s sound; It is balanced where it needs to be, but not lacking in the pronounced individuality of each instrument. I am tempted to highlight the sonority of the viola, for which Shostakovich must have some special regard, but then there is the amber sweetness of cellist Kyril Zlotnikov’s instrument, which belonged to Jacqueline Dupre and was bequeathed to him. The only liner notes necessary to describe the soulfulness of the violinists is the short story by Anton Chekhov, Rothschild’s Violin.  I advise fans of Trans-Danubian-Russo-Gypsy-Jewish fiddling to keep this text close at hand.

It is with both anticipation and a little dread that I turn from Shostakovich to his near contemporary, Bela Bartok, and undertake a review of this year’s biggest string quartet release. Here we get a recital that highlights the three periods of Bartok’s career. It includes the Second (1918), the famous and crowd-pleasing Fourth (1929), and the dire Sixth (1941); They are performed in chronological order. Typically, when I confront this intimidating work, I find it useful to read the score, which keeps me at a distance from the music’s awful implications. This is better than my friend’s bootless advice to “hide under the bed.” The score certainly highlights the intricacy of the Bartokian language and also prompts a suspicion that the ascription of Bartok’s style to folkloric motifs is largely exaggerated.  This Second Quartet is a paragon of vehement modernism; it speaks an original language of artistic estrangement.  I can’t find a trace of the earthy tunefulness that one hears in the Violin Duos, nor (as the liner notes claim) any “Arab accents” derived from his ethno-musical investigations.

For this recital, so close to Halloween, I decided to dispense with the score and comfort food and close off all escape routes, facing the music once and for all. I trust that this Israeli group will have something new to bring to this always challenging experience. What is delivered is utterly awesome. There is as much emotional power as I can stand and then some, but what is even more impressive is the representation we get of very human struggle and despair. It is the kind of revelation that comes only from great art.

After the astringency of the first movement, which is achieved harmonically (unlike in Shostakovich), and the obsessive fury of the second, we arrive at the enigmatic Lento. Perhaps this movement was the inspiration for the striking cover photo of the group. We have the four members of the quartet standing around in the sky, having ascended to Heaven. They look puzzled, dismayed even at the prospect. The clouds are lovely. But there isn’t much human meaning up here, they seem to be saying, and it is too cold for their formal wear.

The blows continue to rain down in the String Quartet No. 4. The ensemble playing never slackens in the diabolical sawing of the Allegro. There are the expected eerie shifts in timbre, icy glissandi, contrapuntal darting and dashing, and yet it feels new. That is the achievement of this recording. At some point in the Non Troppo Lento, as the legendary cello calmly reasons with the shimmering violins, it strikes me that this piece will endure as long as there is music. It is not surprising that it is by far the most played chamber work of Bartok.

The Allegro Pizzicato gives us a chance to comment on the superb sound engineering of the recording. While the plucked notes snap and pop with all the glee of sand fleas on a beach, the chaos is contained within an exact sound image. One sees flea against sand with clarity. The Allegro Molto is, finally, affirmation. “Things are tough? We will be tougher,” it seems to say. We punch the air and stand up and cheer wildly.

The Sixth will never sound familiar. Commonly interpreted as “representing Bartok’s disillusion with a world shattered by the evils of Fascism and nationalism,” I prefer to see it as an expression of private coming to terms with the fate of the individual soul. Unfortunately for us, Bartok doesn’t have much good news in this area. By the final Mesto, I have to remind myself that things are not that bad.

It could not be taken for granted that this all-time greatest Shostakovich cover-band would deliver the Bartok, such a radically different musical genius, with the same authority. However, that is what they have done on this recording. Presumably a second volume is in the works and will be a worthy follow up. For now, I expect this recording to sweep most of the chamber music awards and find a ready audience.

—Fritz Balwit