This is an excellent set of the Bartók String Quartets, although it has two unusual characteristics which may be linked: the playing is very well upholstered – we normally hear a leaner, meaner sound in Bartók – and the interpretations are on the slow side. Usually the six Quartets fit easily on to two CDs, but the feat is accomplished here by having Disc Two run to eighty-three minutes. The slowness is not outrageous, especially if you compare the timings with those of the Hungarian Quartet; but turning to another favourite ensemble, the Keller Quartet, they are significantly slower. The Arcadia Quartet players tell us in a note that they all live in Transylvania. So although the musicians are Romanian, they understand Bartók’s musical language and its roots. They hold a prestigious residency in Bucharest, under which they give six broadcast concerts a year, and they have been together since 2006, picking up a number of competition prizes.
The booklet note by Paul Griffiths is detailed in some respects but strangely lacking in others. I don’t know what it is about many of my British colleagues, but they seem to have a blindspot when it comes to Max Reger. In regard to Bartók’s First Quartet of 1907-09, Griffiths tells us about the love affair with Stefi Geyer and the first trip to Transylvania, but not about the deep study of Reger’s music that Bartók made in 1907 and his visit to the older composer in Leipzig in the early summer of that year. All three movements are connected by “Stefi’s motif” and there are the expected traces of Beethoven and Debussy, but Reger is the strongest influence, especially in the opening movement. In fact, every time I hear this work, I think of Reger. For all this talk of influences, one should sense that a new voice is emerging, and I think the Arcadia players do let us feel that: the leader employs quite a wide vibrato at the start of the Lento, and as the tranquillity is interrupted by the lower strings, we hear an effortlessly powerful cello and it is apparent that the recording quality is very good. Bartók’s polyphony is already well-developed in this movement, which is in ternary form. The second, in medium tempo, follows straight on and is quite dramatic in places; again the cello is well in the sound-picture and changes of tempo are nicely handled. The Finale, slow at the beginning, soon quickens and we meet typically Bartókian folk inflections, tempo changes and fugal writing. The emphatic ending is almost a surprise when it comes. This movement is very well handled although all three are slower than in the Keller performance.
The Second Quartet of 1915-17 follows Bluebeard’s Castle and is on the cusp The Miraculous Mandarin – I far prefer the Quartet, which like some of Beethoven’s works summarises the composer’s progress so far and hints at things to come. Kodály saw the three movements as “A quiet life” / “Joy” / “Sorrow”. The Romanian musicians catch the strange quality of the Moderato, which partakes of both Schoenberg and Reger without crossing the divide between tonal and atonal. They really go for the Allegro molto capriccioso, which as Griffiths points out is almost like a Finale, a furious dance with a slow section that serves for a Trio if you see it as a Scherzo (in reality it is more like a rondo with slow interlude and coda). They get the ethereal, visionary start to the Lento, which takes place in a dream-like atmosphere, even when bolder gestures are made, and ends with the cello’s pizzicato. Here again they are slower than the Kellers in all three movements.
The Third Quartet, written in September 1927, was at once Bartók’s most radical suxh work and his most successful, eventually winning him a prize of $3,000 – which explains the dedication to The Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia. It takes only about fifteen minutes to play and for once the Arcadians are pretty well in agreement with the Kellers. Playing continuously, it can be broken down into a slow section, a fast one, a recapitulation of the first section and a very fast coda. In this work, in addition to a concentrated display of contrapuntal skill, we meet the strange hinterland of the outwardly calm, almost repressed Bartók: he seems to see everything as if in one of those distorting mirrors you encounter at fairgrounds, or perhaps a whole room full of different distorting mirrors. Bartók makes use of such purely string-playing devices as pizzicato, glissando and unusual bowing effects: hitting the strings with the bow, sul tastiera, sul ponticello and col legno. The players know just what to do with the mysterious opening of the Moderato and the manifold special effects are skilfully despatched. The Allegro is furiously played and the second Moderato is very atmospheric with its weird scurrying and swooping, while the coda is pretty fierce and intense.
The Fourth Quartet, coming barely a year later, introduced an arch form with a slow movement in ternary form at the centre, Scherzo-like movements either side, and outer ones marked Allegro and Allegro molto. A network of motivic connections links the movements, not always obviously. The so-called “Bartók pizzicato”, rather violent and perilous with the string hitting the fingerboard, is even more in evidence and the fourth movement is entirely plucked. The opening Allegro is cogently played by the Arcadian members and they capture the shadowy nature of the first Scherzo (Prestissimo), where the instruments are muted. They provide vividly atmospheric playing in the central movement, manage the pizzicato movement well and tear into the Finale, which has a mysterious central section with material from the first movement and ends in the same way as that Allegro. They are very slightly slower than the Kellers in all five movements.
The Fifth Quartet (1934), also in a five-movement arch but with a Scherzo at the centre and slow movements either side of it, is perhaps Bartók’s most Protean Quartet and his masterpiece in the genre. Once again motifs are constantly revisited and transformed. Do the Arcadians present the opening of the Allegro with enough vim? Both the Kellers and the Hungarians seem more awake and alive. But the quieter passages, rather unsettling, are well played by the Arcadians. The Adagio molto, a Bartókian nocturne, is also very nicely done. There is more humour in this Quartet than many ensembles realise and that is where the Hungarians score. These musicians are the great interpreters of this work: the original members studied it with Bartók and gave many of the earliest performances. In the Scherzo, marked Alla bulgarese, they alternate geniality with a sterner approach, as no-one else does. The Arcadians do quite well with their zippy attitude to the faster music and their care with the strange interlude with drones that serves as a Trio. They also manage the second nocturne, the Andante, with aplomb, allowing it to get louder naturally and playing the final pianissimo perfectly. The final Allegro vivace is Bartók’s equivalent of “Muss es sein?”, replete with swoops and scoops, and it needs the humour of the Hungarians, who tuck the absurd hurdy-gurdy episode splendidly into place. The Arcadians are not disgraced and they handle the fast stretta that ends the Quartet as well as anyone. They are slower than the Kellers in all five movements but come out half-a-minute ahead of the Hungarians in their overall timing, simply because the latter foursome take the Adagio molto at its word.
The Sixth Quartet was commissioned by the Hungarians (then the New Hungarian Quartet) in 1939 but because Bartók emigrated and the Hungarians were trapped in Holland, the Kolisch Quartet got not only the premiere but the dedication as well. In this, his final completed Quartet – he planned a Seventh – Bartók for the first and only time resorted to the traditional four movements.But the whole work is pervaded by sadness, perhaps reflecting the composer’s feelings about the fate of Europe. The great Smetana Quartet of Prague studied the piece but in the end decided that it was “too sad” and did not perform it – a shame, because those would have brought tremendous intensity to it. Each movement begins with a very similar slow introduction marked Mesto: this was an afterthought – originally only the third had such an introduction – but it does serve to bind the Quartet together. After its downbeat opening on the viola, the first movement is quite brisk but the thematic material is so chromatic that the sad mood continues, and the second main theme is marked p ma con calore. The second follows its introduction, in which the top three instruments are muted, with a rather jerky march and a slower cadenza-Trio; and similarly the third goes from its slow start to a Burletta, quite grotesque in places, with a slower and much more pleasant Andantino Trio. Originally Bartók planned a fast folk-dance as a Finale and he began sketching it. But now, it seems as if it never recovers from its slow opening, the most sorrowful of the four introductions. Bartók twice throws in the instruction senza colore – he wants a washed-out, exhausted, infinitely sad sound. There are references to the opening movement and to the slow introduction before the music dies away in the wispiest of pianissimos from the violins against the cello’s pianissimo pizzicatos. The Arcadians are on the slow side throughout the Quartet, and in the Finale they add a whole minute to the Kellers’ timing and nineteen seconds to the Hungarians’ 6:54. They do play the Molto tranquillo section very beautifully and they achieve an amazingly quiet sustained ending.
Bartók’s String Quartets have attracted many performers. The Juilliard Quartet was the first to record a complete cycle and could even be said to have invented an American style of playing Bartók, as if in compensation for the dire time the composer had in New York in his final years. I have always loved the Hungarian Quartet set – recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in Hanover in 1961 – and the 1993-94 Keller Quartet set also displays a touch of genius, in its more athletically intense style. I cannot quite claim the same for the Arcadia Quartet, and I suspect that as the years go by the musicians’ interpretations will shed a little fat. For their youthful admirers, and for those who prefer a slightly more comfortable listening experience, this Chandos release will do nicely. It is certainly very well recorded.