The Jerusalem Quartet performs Bartok’s String Quartets Nos 2, 4 and 6

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Bartók * Stravinsky
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 2, 4 and 6
PERFORMER: Jerusalem Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902235

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Predictably, there is some fine playing here, with details in these intricately complex pieces emerging with remarkable clarity. Just occasionally, that clarity is perhaps achieved at the expense of impetuosity: the scurrying second movement of the Fourth Quartet is taken at a tempo that’s a notch below its ‘prestissimo’ marking; and the tempo fluctuations of the Arab-inflected violin melody in the central Scherzo of the Quartet No. 2 are a little underplayed. The rhapsodic cello theme that forms the kernel of the slow movement in No. 4 – this time very much Hungarian in flavour – is very well handled by Kyril Zlotnikov, but he doesn’t quite achieve the sense of parlando rubato that, for instance, András Féjer of the Takács Quartet brings to it.

For his Sixth Quartet, Bartók not only provided his customary metronome markings, but also meticulously entered timings for each successive section of music. The opening viola solo, whose material prefaces each of the succeeding movements, is marked mesto (sad), and Bartók gives it a timing of 50 seconds. The Jerusalem players are pretty much spot-on, yet at this tempo the passage can’t quite convey the full expressive intensity it needs, and it’s worth bearing in mind that composers always hear music in their heads faster than they would like it to be in actual performance. That said, what stands out from the Jerusalem Quartet’s interpretations, quite apart from their technical accomplishment, is their warmth: with these players, Bartók is never in danger of sounding merely aggressive.

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Misha Donat