Bart—k, Hartmann

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bartok,Hartmann
LABELS: ECM
WORKS: String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Zehetmair Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 465 776-2
Thomas Zehetmair, always a penetrating soloist with a searching soul, proves a highly successful quartet leader on this new disc. The coupling is enlightening: Hartmann’s three-movement First Quartet shows the inspiration of Berg’s Lyric Suite, but also of the earthy modality of Bartók, especially in the robust finale. Written in 1933 when Hartmann’s status as an anti-Fascist outsider was already hardening, the work won the Carillon prize in Geneva in 1936, so establishing him as an independent German voice. It demonstrates a remarkable ease of process, from its mournful opening uncoiling, through a rasping dance into the glassy, muted reverie, where the falling intervals of the cello’s alarms sound a hopeless note. The Zehetmair Quartet recreates the subtler textures with an acute ear for balance.

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Compared with my previous benchmark of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, by the Emerson, the Zehetmair may lack a surety of approach, but succeeds in making this extraordinary music more surprising. Its opening is comparatively heavy and dark, and takes some time to swing into life, while the Emerson fires up instantly but, by the end of the movement, has become relentless in its virile attack. The Zehetmair’s Prestissimo, con sordini is an eerie spider’s web beside the Emerson’s well-executed humming. The Americans’ dry detail is thrilling, but the Zehetmair brings a true strangeness both to this pianissimo rush and to the cantabile non troppo lento. Françoise Groben has a duskier, more fluid touch in the rhapsodic melodies than the more tightly focused David Finckel. Altogether, this gentle treatment of the contemplative ‘night’ music makes for a more satisfying whole: the pizzicato movement has a rough bite, while the Zehetmair waits for the final movement to unleash its raw fury – and all the more effective it is for that. One does not feel it has ‘a way’ with Bartók yet, but is still reeling from the shock of the new. I wish this exciting new ensemble – just four years old – a long life.