Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: Nos. 1–6
NEWTON 880211 (2 CDs: 153:20)
Bartók’s six string quartets were already well established in the repertoire and well represented on disc long before the Guarneri Quartet came to record them in 1975 and 1976 for RCA. I believe, in fact, that the Juilliard Quartet was the first ensemble to record an integral cycle, for Columbia in 1949 and 1950. That set has been transferred to CD and is available on Pearl.
Juilliard Quartet would twice revisit Bartók’s quartets, once in 1963 and again in 1981, both times for Sony, but not before the Végh Quartet followed the Juilliard’s first survey with its own cycle in 1954 and the Fine Arts Quartet threw its hat in the ring in 1959. Shortly after the Juilliard made its second set in 1963, but well before its third set in 1981, and still well before the Guarneri Quartet got into the act, the Novák Quartet put in its six cents for Philips in 1965, and the Hungarian Quartet weighed in for Deutsche Grammophon in 1961. If there’s any surprise here, it’s in who
get into the act. One thinks of the Amadeus Quartet, the Quartetto Italiano, and especially the Pro Arte Quartet, to which Bartók dedicated the Fourth Quartet.
To these six seminal 20th-century string quartets the Guarneri applies its well-known warm tone and plush sound. Where the Végh feasts on Bartók’s raw meat still dripping with blood, the Guarneri’s rather more refined approach serves the dish up as steak tartare. And where the Juilliard hones its attacks and hairpin dynamics to the sharpness of a surgical blade, the Guarneri prefers to wield a butter knife.
Don’t get me wrong; these are superbly executed performances, and you could say that the Guarneri Quartet has profited from those pioneering ensembles for which the music was new, difficult, and still shocking. What happens sooner or later with so much modern music is that as our ears grow accustomed to it we no longer find it discomfiting, and as musicians become more practiced at playing it, they find ways of taming it. Conductors and orchestral musicians, for example, are now so familiar and comfortable with a work like Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring
that it’s not unusual to encounter new recordings of the piece that soften its edges to the point where it sounds more like
Serenade to Spring.
To some extent, this softening of the edges and ironing-out of the rough spots is what you will hear in the Guarneri’s Bartók. It’s an approach to these scores that would not have been possible if not for those pioneers that paved the way for the Guarneri and others that followed to find a path already explored and well marked. The grass had been flattened by a quarter-century’s passage of wagon wheels over the trail.
Bartók will never sound like Mozart, but the Guarneri plays Bartók with a beauty and elegance that unmistakably connects these works to the long legacy of the Classical era string quartet repertoire. I wouldn’t want to be without some of the above-noted versions of Bartók’s quartets, not to mention those by the Emerson Quartet and the highly acclaimed Belcea Quartet, but at Newton’s budget price, this is practically a steal. Definitely recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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