String Quartets Nos 1, 3 & 5
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902240 75:24 mins
Despite stiff competition from his contemporaries, Bartók’s is perhaps the greatest 20th century contribution to the quartet literature and we can never have enough recordings. So it is welcome news that the outstanding Jerusalem Quartet, who released the even-numbered works on the same label back in 2016, has now with this album completed their cycle.
Dating from the early phase of Bartók’s career, the First Quartet reflects the same unhappy love affair with Stefi Geyer as the Violin Concerto, taking up the ‘Stefi theme’ as well. It opens in a state of lonely desolation, and the feeling of suspense is superbly captured by the Jerusalems, who also find the earthy folksiness to remind us that Bartók’s language is rooted in multi-ethnic Transylvania. Equally impressive in the Fifth, a towering masterpiece based symmetrically around its third movement (‘Alla bulgarese’), they play the finale with whirling virtuosity.
They also meet all the technical innovations of the Third, but this is where my slight reservation creeps in: such highly cultivated playing as the Jerusalems produce perhaps renders the work’s strangeness not quite mesmerising enough.