Bartok: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6
PERFORMER: Takács Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 455 297-2
The Takács Quartet has recorded these pieces before, some 13 years ago, but since allying itself exclusively to Decca in 1988 its recording activity has concentrated on 18th- and 19th-century classics. Its return to one of the most gripping and vital bodies of string quartets written this century comes therefore as a welcome reminder of a remarkable musical combination.

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Although now only half Hungarian (the original leader has departed, and violist Gábor Ormai died in 1995), the quartet’s sensitivity to the idiom remains beyond question. The players’ rhythmic dynamism and heights of virtuosity, their capacity for rapid shifts of mood and their strongly poetic collective imagination are ideal for Bartók, whether in ‘night music’ mode or stripped down for manic folk dancing.

All the quartets are demanding. In the symmetrically structured Fourth Quartet – a violent, disjointed opening; an urgent, breathless second; an eerie, phantasmagoric central section; pizzicato fourth and disturbed, barbaric close – the Takács rises to each challenge in turn, without cheapening or underestimating them. In the Sixth – written as war threatened to force Bartók into exile – it shows how Bartók’s intention to write something sad (each movement is marked ‘Mesto’) is undermined by the irrepressible vigour of his idiom.

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The performances are all delightful and enlightening. But the Takács’s principal achievement is to have it all so within its grasp, without that dazzling facility reducing our amazement at the uneasy, beautiful and extraordinary colours that Bartók could draw from a string quartet.