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: Simax
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: Vertavo String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PSC 1197
Until this set arrived, my ideal Bartók quartet cycle would have been somewhere between the Emerson Quartet on DG and the Takács on Decca. The Emerson has the power and precision to back up its compelling sense of the formal logic of each work. The Takács on the other hand scores massively on expressive freedom and character. After one hearing, though, I’m inclined to think that the Vertavo Quartet offers a more rounded view of Bartók. As with the Takács, the Vertavo’s expression feels unconstrained, and yet, while the players are not metronomically exact, their feeling for tempo relation and proportion shows how thoroughly they have digested Bartók’s often dauntingly precise instructions. There are passages where the music doesn’t come across with the whiplash force of the Takács – the brutal Burletta of the Sixth Quartet for instance; and the meditative cello solo in the central slow movement of No. 4 doesn’t have the same sharp Balkan flavouring in the Vertavo version. It comes close to, but doesn’t quite equal, the Emerson’s analytical clarity. And yet there’s an emotional logic and focused inner intensity which makes each of the Vertavo’s performances thoroughly convincing on its own terms – convincing and gripping. While there’s no exaggeration, the spectrum of moods is immense, from the pungent elation of the First Quartet’s dance finale to the contained desolation of the Sixth’s concluding Mesto. In the two most radical quartets – Nos 3 and 4 – the Vertavo gives due weight to Bartók’s modernist sound effects, but as in the other quartets the expressive melodic line remains prominent. The recordings are excellent, too: close and well-focused but with a sense of space around the instruments. Strongly recommended.

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