Bartok: String Quartets (complete)

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: DG
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Hagen Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 463 576-2
Bartók’s six string quartets have long since ceased to be regarded as ‘difficult’ music. That’s a measure of how far we’ve come, I suppose, in assimilating and managing change, so it’s reassuring to find that, more than 60 years after Bartók completed his last string quartet in 1939, the strident modernity of this cycle seems as riveting as ever.

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Comparing this new set from the Hagen Quartet with the definitive Végh Quartet traversal (on Astrée), the biggest contrast that emerges is how much more polished and respectable the Hagen sounds. But at what cost? The Végh’s rollercoaster ride has been supplanted by an orderly drabness that’s hard to reconcile with the acrid, nerve-jangling urgency of this music. The Hagen’s sanitised, shrink-wrapped playing represses the visceral emotions that fume just beneath the surface of these works. Its mix of dutiful accuracy and contained emotional involvement might suit those who want objective, analytical performances – the kind you can listen to score-in-hand without getting too caught up in the moment – but if you like this music properly red in tooth and claw, there’s too much left unsaid here.

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Like the Emerson’s DG Bartók survey, the Hagen Quartet’s performances fit on two, rather than the expected three discs, offering a significant cash saving. DG’s catalogue also contains the Tokyo Quartet’s thrilling cycle in its ‘20th-Century Classics’ series. It distils Bartók’s frenzied iconoclasm superbly – none of the more recent surveys comes quite as close to the heart of the matter. Michael Jameson