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Bartok & Kodaly: The Complete String Quartets

Bartok / Alexander String Quartet
Release Date: 10/08/2013 
Label:  Foghorn Classics   Catalog #: 2009   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Béla BartókZoltán Kodály
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 26 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BARTÓK String Quartets No. 1–6. KODÁLY String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 Alexander Str Qrt FOGHORN 2009 (3 CDs: 205:55)

This fascinating set combines the string quartets of two then-young professors of music in Hungary, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. It’s an interesting set even though Bartók wrote a half-dozen quartets, which have since become staples of string quartets around the world, whereas Read more Kodály only wrote two which are not as frequently programmed. Nor are the Kodály quartets as frequently recorded: ArkivMusic lists only one other recording of the First Quartet, by the Kontra Quartet (BIS 564), and only seven other recordings of Kodály’s No. 2, of which three are historical performances (the Végh Quartet, 1951, on Orfeo 316931; the Hungarian Quartet, 1952, on Music & Arts; and the Hollywood String Quartet, 1958, on Testament). Bartók beat Kodály to his First Quartet by a matter of months, the premiere occurring on January 27, 1909. Both composers worked on their second quartets during the harsh period of the First World War, and both works also had their premieres in 1918. For whatever reason, Kodály stopped at this point, whereas Bartók wrote four more quartets.

Comparing the Emerson Quartet’s performances of the First and Third Bartók quartets to the Alexander’s (I really didn’t have time to do the entire set, but these two quartets provide a good basis, the First being from Bartók’s earlier period and the Third coming from 1927), I found interesting if subtle points of comparison. But my Fanfare colleague Art Lange, upon reviewing the Emerson set when it was reissued in 2007, went even further back, comparing it to the performances of the Hungarian Quartet, and noted the earlier group’s “looser, albeit dramatic approach” in which the Hungarians “take a few liberties with pauses and tempos” and “have a better feel for the folk elements,” though—and I stress this—the earlier group tended to lessen “the accumulated tension” and “exaggerate more of the mysterious and atmospheric passages.” This trend, then, is simply turned up a notch in intensity and continuity by the Alexander, bringing us a tad further forward from the folk style that Bartók used.

With the Third Quartet, Bartók’s most astringent, compact, and dense work of the six, the style of playing is virtually identical in the case of both the Emerson and the Alexander: sonorities are lean, attacks are sharp, and the musical contours angular. There aren’t many interpretive options in this particular piece. But in the First Quartet (as well as in the first movement of the Second, which I also compared), there are decided differences in approach and style. The Emerson employs particularly broad tempos in the opening movement of the First Quartet, taking a leisurely 9:16 compared to the Alexander’s 8: 30. There is also greater warmth in the Emerson’s sound: whether this is a condition of their actual timbres or simply advantageous microphone placement, I don’t know. Of course, the leaner, brighter quality of the Alexander’s recording is entirely appropriate to modern music, particularly the modern music that emerged after Bartók’s death, and even within the context of these six quartets their performances set a very high standard.

As an example, I felt that the Alexander’s performance of the First Quartet’s opening movement, though less leisurely in feeling, has a tensile quality that immerses the listener in Bartók’s unique sound world and holds your attention. It is almost as if the Alexander’s players had the entire score in their heads, could “see” the music progressing as one continuous flow from first note to last, and thus propelled it into the ether for the benefit of the microphones. They do not, thankfully, play mechanically, the music being produced with almost explosive energy and drama. Yet if one goes by timings, the evidence is not always in the Emerson’s favor. The Alexander nearly always takes the fast movements just as fast if not faster than the Emerson, whereas their slow movements are generally (but not always) more relaxed, an exception being the Lento Finale of the Second Quartet, which the Emerson explores in 9:18 while the Alexander gets it done in 7: 38. As I say, tempos do not always indicate phrasing, but a performance nearly two minutes shorter simply has to be taken faster. What’s interesting, however, is that by and large the Alexander’s performance only sounds a little faster, and once again it ties this movement into the overall fabric—the continuity—of the Quartet as a whole.

The Alexander also finds moments of repose within their forward momentum; it’s just that their moments of repose are subtler, less easily discernible as pauses in the music (comparing it to literature, one might say commas in the musical sentences). To a large extent, Bartók’s six quartets are the 20th-century equivalent of Beethoven’s late quartets, and one can most certainly make a generalization between the way earlier string quartets such as the Rosé played them—with a certain amount of gemütlich, more portamento than we are used to today, and more astringent string tone due to the musicians’ more frequent (but not constant) use of straight tone—and the way we’ve come to hear them since the days of the Budapest Quartet, surely the first “modern” string quartet in terms of tautness and ensemble virtuosity, and the Yale Quartet, whose 1961 recordings of these thorny works set new standards. We simply can’t go back to the Rosé Quartet and hear their performances of Beethoven as being within our conception of the music; yet both as a quartet leader and as concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, Arnold Rosé’s artistry and integrity as a musician was utterly beyond question.

I mention this in connection to these performances because it is not only an interesting artistic topic, but also valid in evaluating the evolution of musical performances in the 20th century and beyond. Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, composed in 1928, was in fact dedicated to the Pro Arte Quartet. I daresay that only diehard collectors of vintage performances will be familiar with Pro Arte’s style (they recorded an extensive series of Haydn quartets for HMV in the 1930s, a project ended by the onset of war, and also performed frequently both on and off records with pianist Artur Schnabel), but they were somewhere between the Rosé and the Budapest Quartets. There is a more consistent vibrato, fine and rapid but still discernible, in their playing than in the case of the Rosé, but also a slightly more relaxed rhythmic feel, a bit more give-and-take, than we hear in the playing of the Budapest and the many quartets that followed them. (I should point out that I heard the Hungarian Quartet in person playing Beethoven in 1970, but this was a later edition of this famous group and their style, too, had evolved into a more consistent forward momentum by then, not like their style of the 1950s.)

Checking on the artists’ own website (foghornclassics.com), I was startled to read in a review by Lisa Hirsch of the San Francisco Classical Voice that the Alexander’s live performance of one of the Bartók quartets was “introverted,” without “neglecting the work’s varying moods.” Introverted is not a word I’d apply to these explosive performances. They are indeed fantastic, although I would caution that Bartók’s continual intensity, as well as the extraordinarily dense harmonies and counterpoint, make listening to all six quartets in one sitting a tough go. I would suggest hearing two quartets at a time, separated by either periods of silence or less challenging music. Listening to even three of these works in one session is rather like listening to a full 70-minute CD of Art Tatum. The concentrated complexity of the music that unfolds can tire even a seasoned listener like myself out.

Then we turn to the Kodály quartets, less familiar works surely (this was the first time I had ever heard them), but once again we can make certain generalizations regarding the Alexander’s performances of them as based on the details and style one hears in their Bartók. Even the earlier Quartet No. 1 is given a taut, clean reading, bringing it close in style to Bartók’s own work. Of course, Kodály was his own man: although he assisted Bartók in recording and cataloguing Magyar folk melodies, and used some of their features in his own work, he was more consistent in writing longer, less sharply angular melodies. In short, Kodály’s music sings more, a factor that surely attracted more conductors of his time to perform his music during the 1920s and 1930s than was often Bartók’s fate. In this respect, Kodály’s quartets are a bit closer in general conception (but not exact details) to Janá?ek, whose quartets actually “sing” more than his operas. Listen particularly to the slow movements here: Kodály’s music, and the Alexander’s playing of it, are exceptionally lovely and moving in addition to being musically clean. Once again, as in their Bartók, the Alexander has found a way of bringing out the music’s tender side when tenderness is called for—which is more frequently in these Kodály works.

The list price of this set is $29.96, which breaks down to $9.93 per CD, a very reasonable price in this modern era, but the Alexander’s website indicates that Allegro Music is selling the set for $23.97 (which you can order directly from them), which breaks down to $7.99 per disc, bringing it into line with a budget label such as Naxos. I still like the Emerson’s recordings of the Bartók, but as a total package this one is irresistible. If you’ve put off buying a set of the Bartók quartets until now, and/or don’t have any recordings of the Kodály, you can’t go wrong with this collection. It is, quite simply, terrific.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 in A minor, Op. 7/Sz 40 by Béla Bartók
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 28 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 3, Sz 85 by Béla Bartók
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 9 Minutes 49 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 5, Sz 102 by Béla Bartók
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 30 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 17 by Béla Bartók
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915-1917; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 25 Minutes 1 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 4, Sz 91 by Béla Bartók
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 22 Minutes 15 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 6, Sz 114 by Béla Bartók
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 27 Minutes 8 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 1, Op. 2 by Zoltán Kodály
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1908-1909; Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 37 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 2, Op. 10 by Zoltán Kodály
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alexander String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1916-1918; Hungary 
Venue:  St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belveder 
Length: 16 Minutes 20 Secs. 

Sound Samples

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, Sz. 40: I. Lento
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, Sz. 40: II. Allegretto
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, Sz. 40: III. Introduzione: Allegro
String Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85: Prima parte: Moderato -
String Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85: Seconda parte: Allegro -
String Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85: Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato - Coda: Allegro molto
String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102: I. Allegro
String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102: II. Adagio molto
String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102: III. Scherzo. Alla bulgarese (Vivace)
String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102: IV. Andante
String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102: V. Finale: Allegro vivace
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17, Sz. 67: I. Moderato
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17, Sz. 67: II. Allegro molto capriccioso
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17, Sz. 67: III. Lento
String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91: I. Allegro
String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91: II. Prestissimo, con sordino
String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91: III. Non troppo lento
String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91: IV. Allegretto pizzicato
String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91: V. Allegro molto
String Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114: I. Mesto - Piu mosso, pesante - Vivace
String Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114: II. Mesto - Marcia
String Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114: III. Mesto - Burletta: Moderato
String Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114: IV. Mesto

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