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

COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Pearl
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: Juilliard Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: GEMS 0147 ADD mono
Apart from Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, and Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, few partnerships seem to last as long as string quartets. Both the Juilliard and the Borodin were formed in the Forties and are still going strong. Although all the Bartók quartets had been recorded individually, the juilliard’s was the first cycle to be made by a single ensemble. These famous LPs were recorded in 1950 for American Columbia (Philips issued it some years later) and were for long a benchmark set. The Juilliard went on to re-record them in stereo more than once, but there is something quite special about the group’s pioneering set – a sense of discovery and of awe. It is a cornerstone of the Bartók discography and those who have the original LPs will be able to testify as to the excellence of Roger Beardsley’s transfers.

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Another celebrated series from the Fifties is of Boccherini string quintets, recorded by the eponymous boccherini quintet, whose claims should not be overlooked. They offer a mere fraction of his enormous output in this genre (there are some 125 quintets in all), but how rich in melody and fluent in invention this genial master is, and how unjust is his neglect. When did you last hear any of his quintets played in the concert hall? These mellifluous, glorious pieces deserve better, though they could not be played with more refined musicianship and tonal lustre than they are by these artists. Praise cannot be too high for the quality of the transfers.

Although the borodin came together as students as long ago as 1944, it was not until 1955 that the ensemble assumed its present name – and rightly so, for Borodin had a more highly developed interest in chamber music than any of his Russian colleagues of ‘The Five’. Such was the quartet’s tonal refinement and unanimity of ensemble that it soon became something of a legend. Its famous LP of the two Borodin quartets, made in 1979, remains unsurpassed, a yardstick by which all others are judged and now issued on Chandos Historical. I did not know the quartet’s version of the Debussy-Ravel coupling, just released on the same label and made when Rostislav Dubinsky was still its leader. Not to be confused with the record the quartet made for Virgin two decades later, it strikes me as fresher and more spontaneous.

We take the Debussy-Ravel coupling so much for granted nowadays that we forget that in the early days of mono it was far from routine. The 1954 Quartetto Italiano version of the Debussy came in harness with Milhaud’s Quartet No. 12, sunny and relaxed with something of the allure of Provence that you find in so much of Milhaud’s music, and the Quartetto Italiano plays it with its characteristic perfection. As always, its ensemble is stunning (in those days its members played from memory) but there are some tiny expressive distortions that sound just a little affected. Its 1965 Philips performance, long the standard recommendation, is every bit as impeccable technically and completely free from artifice.

The rarest of these historic foursomes is the calvet quartet, founded immediately after the First World War and active until the outbreak of the Second. Thanks to the advocacy of Nadia Boulanger, it gave two complete Beethoven cycles in the late Twenties and went on to record a handful of the quartets – the F major and A major from the Op. 18 set, the E minor Razumovsky and the C sharp minor, Op. 131 – in the late Thirties. Nowadays the quartet is scarcely remembered and scantily represented on record. In the Thirties the Busch, Pro Arte and Léner Quartets reigned supreme and the record companies looked with horror at the prospect of duplicating repertoire. When war came, the Calvet broke up, and two of its players formed their own ensembles in America. (Violinist Daniel Guilet, as Daniel Guilevitch became, went on to form his own quartet and then lead the Beaux Arts Trio until 1969.) At first I was put off by the dryness of the acoustic, but soon forgot such matters, for the playing is so gripping. The group has great finesse, a wide dynamic range and much lightness of touch in matters of phrasing and accent. The musicians seem to find just the right tempo; everything sounds natural and unforced, the secret of real style. Wartime conditions prevented these performances circulating in Britain and America, and so for most music lovers these handsomely presented CDs will be a new encounter, as they were for me, and something of a revelation.

The celebrated partnership of Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals and Alfred Cortot was perhaps the most revered ensemble of the last century – and certainly the most famous pre-war trio. Yet, unlike the Beaux Arts, it did not last long – in fact barely a decade – and made remarkably few records. The players are technically immaculate, supremely lyrical and with a spontaneity of feeling underpinned by firm yet flexible rhythm. Ward Marston’s transfers give these exalted performances, including the miraculously characterised Mendelssohn scherzo, a new lease of life..

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• BBC Music Magazine DirectBartók: call for price; Boccherini (each): call for price; Borodin: call for price; Debussy/Borodin: call for price; Debussy/Italiano: call for price; Beethoven (each): £10.99; Mendelssohn: £4.99; Schubert: £4.99