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Bartok: String Quartets Nos. 2, 4 & 6 / Euclid Quartet

Bartok / Euclid Quartet
Release Date: 05/25/2010 
Label:  Artek   Catalog #: 53   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Béla Bartók
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 19 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BARTÓK String Quartets: No. 2; No. 4; No. 6 Euclid Quartet ARTEK 0053 (78:47)

As far as I can tell, the Euclid Quartet, a group new to me, has made only one previous recording; it’s on the Centaur label and contains four of 18 string quartets by a mid 20th-century Austrian composer named Hugo Kauder. The fact that I’ve never heard of him I’m sure means diddly to members of the Hugo Kauder Society, who almost certainly have never heard of me. They have cataloged more than 300 of the composer’s works, Read more but cite the Euclid Quartet’s Centaur album as the only recording of any of his music. Fascinating.

The quartet is based in South Bend, Indiana, where the ensemble is quartet-in-residence at Indiana University and its members are on the music faculty. The players are a multinational mix hailing from the U.S., the U.K., and Venezuela. The chances of a recording containing Bartók’s even-numbered quartets being a one-off is pretty slim, so I would expect a second disc to follow containing Nos. 1, 3, and 5.

Bartók wrote his six quartets over a period of 30 years. Those on the present CD were written in 1915–17 (No. 2), 1927 (No. 4), and 1939 (No. 6). The sixth and final quartet was the last work he would write before fleeing his native Hungary for the U.S. in 1940. The sound world of the Second Quartet has roots in the dense, chromatic, “liberated” tonality of early Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. The atmosphere of the first movement is heavy and humid, and the result, according to note author Barbara Heninger, is “an otherworldly wandering through major and minor modes.” This is dispelled by the Allegro molto capriccioso that follows, a veritable Hungarian hoedown at a Gypsy encampment. The concluding Lento, austere and bleak, seems almost to anticipate the hallmark desolation in Shostakovich’s string quartets.

The Fourth Quartet is in five movements, and is considered by most commentators to be a breakthrough work that represents a new direction for the composer. Formally, the piece is extremely complex, drawing together elements of Bartók’s favored arch design, the mirroring of motivic and harmonic content, and the derivation of mathematical symmetries based on the “Golden Section,” a reference to the ideal ratio derived from numerical series and proportions. For an in-depth analysis, I would point you to a paper titled Formal Considerations in Béla Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet by Michael Ladd, accessible at bayarea.net/~kins/AboutMe/Bartok/Bartok_SQ4_Analysis.html.

Beyond the formal aspects, the Fourth Quartet became the composer’s experimental lab for extended instrumental techniques involving mutes, glissandos, and a technique that has come to be called “Bartók” or “snap-string” pizzicato, where the player pulls upward on the string and then releases it to slap against the fingerboard. The quartet is in some ways a primer for many of the common characteristics we tend to associate with Bartók’s music: the swarming insects, for example, of the Prestissimo, con sordino movement, or the raw, barbarous stomping dance of the concluding Allegro molto.

For his Sixth and final quartet, Bartók returns to a four-movement layout, but one in which each movement begins with a Mesto introduction composed of the same motivic material. With each movement, however, the Mesto becomes successively longer until finally, in the last movement, it is no longer introductory but subsumes the movement in its entirety. This was not the composer’s original intent. His sketches tell us that he had planned to end the piece with a fast, dance-like finale, but news of his mother’s death led to his abandoning the original design and expanding the Mesto into a moving elegy.

Bartók’s quartets have enjoyed a long and distinguished history on record. My first complete set was with the New Hungarian Quartet recorded in 1976 for one of those dreadful-sounding Vox Boxes. Luckily, only a year later, I was able to replace it with the Guarneri Quartet’s much improved sounding RCA LPs. Then, four years later, the Juilliard Quartet followed with its digitally recorded LP set, and in that same year (1981), I believe, the Tokyo Quartet added its readings to a growing discography. In 1987 the Alban Berg Quartet got on the bandwagon with what is still one of the most critically acclaimed sets. Since then, we’ve had second helpings from the Végh (Naïve) and Takács (Decca) Quartets, and first helpings from the Hagen, Emerson, and Belcea Quartets. These last two are particularly noteworthy. Barry Brenesal in Fanfare 31:6 reckoned that the Belcea’s version was one of the finest of the complete sets to appear in some time. But the greatest accolades, both here and elsewhere, have been reserved for the Emerson’s readings, which Art Lange in 30:6 elevated to “classic status.”

The Euclid Quartet runs the Emerson a close race when it comes to precision of ensemble and clarity of texture, but the Euclid doesn’t quite match the Emerson in making the execution of these hair-raisingly difficult scores sound easy. Perhaps that’s a plus rather than a minus. One of the recurring criticisms one hears lodged against the Emerson is that the playing is a little too slick and clinical. While I’ve always adhered to the belief that the ideal in string playing should be one in which the bow is seen but not heard—i.e., a clean, non-abrasive sound—it could be argued that some abrasiveness in Bartók’s quartets is a good thing, that it’s in the nature of the music, and it’s what the composer would have wanted.

I’m not suggesting that the Euclid scrapes and scratches away like fingernails on a chalkboard; far from it. But the players are willing, where the music calls for it, to put a little elbow grease into the effort. The Euclid captures and reflects the wildly contrasting moods and emotional states of these works as well as any ensemble I’ve heard. When the quartets on this disc are inevitably joined by their odd-numbered companions, I believe we will have another Bartók cycle worthy of being ranked alongside the big-name groups mentioned above. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 17 by Béla Bartók
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915-1917; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Gos 
Length: 26 Minutes 19 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 4, Sz 91 by Béla Bartók
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Gos 
Length: 22 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 6, Sz 114 by Béla Bartók
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Gos 
Length: 28 Minutes 38 Secs. 

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