Notes and Editorial Reviews
Six very different musical worlds illuminated with laser-like precision – and with a few quirky gestures added for effect. A major addition to the Bartok quartet discography.
One of the many rewarding aspects of Bartok’s quartets is their responsiveness to differing interpretative options. Sifting and sampling through six comparative sets finds me reluctant to dismiss any as uncompetitive, though three obstinately remain in the front rank – this new set by the Hagen Quartet being one. I say ‘new’, though a brief glance at the recording dates tells us that the first three quartets were actually recorded before the Takacs Quartet made their Gramophone Award-winning set for Decca (12/95 as opposed to 8/96 and 9/96).
Quartets Nos 1-3 were set down at the Bibliothekssaal, Polling, whereas three years were to pass before the Hagens entered the Mozarteum Grosser Saal, Salzburg to record Quartets Nos 4-6.
The sound is surprisingly consistent, and the performances consistently adventurous. Though never over-literal, the Hagens take careful heed of Bartok’s expressive markings. For example, in the predominantly romantic First Quartet, violist Veronika Hagen stresses the accents in her molto appassionato rubato passage at 4'49'' more forcefully than most of her rivals. At the other end of the dynamic scale, those infinitely mysterious chords at 6'43'' are truly pp possibile while darting inflections that are so characteristic of the group as a whole come into recreative play at around 1'35'' into the third movement.
Wherever Bartok looks forward, the Hagens take his cue. Theirs is a keen, stylised, animated view of the music, leaner than most and especially strong on colour. The Second Quartet’s leggiero writing (first movement, at 1'02''), the lightning muted prestissimo that closes the second movement (from 6'30'') or the veiled, sotto voce writing at 5'19'' into the finale, all register with extraordinary vividness.
The Third Quartet inspires a highly individual response, though the sul ponticello semiquavers that launch the coda seem so single-mindedly intent on making a ghostly effect that they tend to lose rhythmic focus. A little later, when the bows shift ‘back from the bridge’, the Hagens over-emphasise a crucial chord that falls one bar after fig 3 (00'16'' – they do the same sort of thing five bars later), rather disrupting the flow. Turn to the Hungarian Quartet – not a set that I enjoy unreservedly – and the same passage reclaims its musical sense. By comparison, the Hagens’ Third seems just a little unsure of its ground, particularly in the coda.
The Fourth’s opening Allegro is unusually expressive (some groups force the music’s angularity to virtual ugliness), and the two Scherzos – one fast and muted, the other a spidery pizzicato – are superbly played. The motor-driven finale takes on some lunging fortissimos that punctuate (but never disrupt) the momentum.
When I first heard the Fifth Quartet’s first movement, I wondered whether the Hagens were trying to mirror Bartok’s almost impossible timings (a total of seven-and-a-half minutes painstakingly sub-divided into 12 sections). Indeed, sections one, 10, 11 and 12 are spot-on virtually to the second, though the intervening episodes allow for more leeway in tempo. Not that it matters (or that other groups treat these timings as a priority). The half-crazed ‘Tempo 1’ dance motive that raises a riot at letter E (2'55'') is given with tremendous panache, and the syncopated Scherzo has a bright, throw-away feel that never precludes executive precision.
Both the Fifth and Sixth Quartets are packed full of the most delicate ideas, shimmering, self-communing music with occasional bursts of unchecked passion (No 6’s Marcia) or humour (the close of No 5’s finale and 6’s Burletta). This is truly home territory for the Hagens, though for sheer warmth and intimacy, I would trade many an option to keep the Tokyo Quartet’s DG recording of the Sixth Quartet. Which, of course, begs the inevitable question of comparisons.
To be honest, it’s almost impossible to nail a truly definitive first choice. The Takacs are supremely natural, always insightful and full of zest, though the new DG recording is better focused. The earlier Tokyos offer a precision-tooled cycle, emotive but meticulous, less energetic perhaps than the Emersons – another excellent set – and less idiomatic than the wonderfully spontaneous but technically fallible Vegh Quartet. As ever, I would urge Sony to reissue the Juilliard Quartet’s second recording. They’ve already reissued the Juilliard’s digital third set as an ‘Essential Classics’ double-pack (on SB2K 63234 – though not in the UK) which, although very good, isn’t quite in the same class. The analogue set is essential listening and stands alongside the Takacs, the Hagens, the Veghs and the Emersons as being among the most compelling Bartok quartet cycles ever recorded.
--Rob Cowan, Gramophone [8/2000]
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