LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Bartók
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1-6
PERFORMER: The Heath Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMM 907661-62
The six quartets Béla Bartók composed between 1907 and 1939 may have been outdone long since in technical complexity by the quartets of Elliott Carter and Brian Ferneyhough and, some would argue, been rivalled in spiritual depth by the 15-quartet cycle of Shostakovich. But they retain a unique intensity and have done remarkably well on disc, all the way from the pioneering mono LP cycles by the Juilliard, Vegh and Hungarian Quartets back in the 1950s, to such much-praised CD versions by the Tokyo, Emerson, Keller and Takács Quartets of more recent decades.
The young players of the Heath Quartet in this latest cycle yield little to any of their distinguished peers in virtuosity and formal grip. Their tempos seem relatively lively, though they are, in fact, consistently steadier than the impulsive Keller Quartet, who, in turn, are slower than the hair-raising timings Bartók himself demanded in his last two quartets. Two of the strengths of the Heath Quartet are their ability to hold together Bartók’s more sectional structures, such as the first movements of the Fourth and Fifth quartets in convincing single spans, and their acute characterisation of some of his more extreme inventions such as the insouciant march and bizarre trio comprising the second movement of the Sixth, the feral folkloristic onslaught of the last movement of the Fourth or the numb desolation of the finale of the Second.
Maybe the Tokyo Quartet are more immaculately modernist in approach, maybe the Takács more earthily Hungarian, but overall this fine release should not disappoint.