Bartok: String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Bartok
LABELS: Music & Arts
ALBUM TITLE: Bartok: String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartets
PERFORMER: Fine Arts Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1176
In the 1970s Saga Records issued these 1959 recordings on three bargain price LPs, offering those on a tight budget the ideal opportunity to get to know Bartók’s Quartets. Hearing them again after an absence of many years is like re-acquainting oneself an old friend. The remastered recordings, although closely miked and perhaps somewhat limited in dynamic range, sound remarkably fresh and clear for the period in which they were made. The interpretations are straightforward and uncontroversial, the main aim being to realise Bartók’s intricate directions as accurately as possible.

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Balancing technical brilliance with emotional intensity, the Fine Arts are particularly convincing in the middle quartets. The outer movements of both the Fourth and Fifth are delivered with tremendous energy and attack, while the slow movements are imbued with a real sense of mystery. There are fine things too in the First Quartet, and the inclusion of an audio recording of a 1959 television programme in which members of the Fine Arts discussed and rehearsed this particular work is an unexpected and welcome bonus.

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Since the late 1950s there have of course been many outstanding recordings of these masterpieces, one of the most recent from the Takács Quartet (Decca) remaining the benchmark version for its excellent sound and a more lyrical emotional spectrum. But despite my allegiance to that particular version, I would recommend the Music and Arts set, not least as a memento of one of the best American chamber ensembles of the 20th century. Erik Levi