These days if you can find a specialist classical music shop and ask for these wonderful string quartets no one even bats an eyelid, but I remember quite vividly going into a record shop in Liverpool in the early 1980’s, an establishment known for its selling of musical instruments and the building of organs (it’s no longer there) and asking about the Bartók String Quartets, only to be met with the response of “Oh, you don’t want that rubbish!” Thankfully, I didn’t let this put me off them and I now have a couple of recordings, including the version I was to end up buying on that fateful day, the Novák Quartet on Philips. In fact, these days the Bartók String Quartets have become commonplace with a growing catalogue of recordings for the listener to choose from, including the excellent recording by the Takács Quartet, my go-to recording of this wonderful series of quartets.
The Takács’ performance is taught and full of rhythmic intensity with tempos slightly faster than that of the Arcadia Quartet’s performance; here we have an interpretation that emphasises Bartók the poet, with tempos that allow the beauty of this music to shine through. Just listen to the third movement of the String Quartet No.2, the first work on the second disc, and this becomes abundantly clear; this is a performance of passion and a different kind of intensity to that of the Takács Quartet, with both approaches being equally valid. If we move on to perhaps my favourite of the quartets, the Fourth, the way the skittish second movement effortlessly bounces along is well paced and detailed, but it is when this is followed by the slow central movement that this performance really shows its metal. Here, the way the that the solo sections for the cello and first violin are phrased and lovingly drawn out is quite lovely, especially the way that its contemplative elements are emphasised. The Arcadia Quartet do however show that they have the measure of every aspect of this work, with the pizzicato section of the fourth movement and the highly charged music of the final movement coming off very well indeed. This is a wonderful performance of the Fourth Quartet, for many the make or break quartet of the six, and I am glad to say that the Arcadia Quartet comes out with flying colours. The disc concludes with a very fine performance of the Sixth Quartet, where the control in the pensive Mesto opening of the third movement is excellent, with the Arcadia’s jump into the more animated Burletta, Moderato section being flawless.
It might seem odd to have discussed the second disc first, but it does contain my two favourite quartets. However, I can assure you that there is some wonderful playing on disc one too. Right from the opening movement of the First Quartet you appreciate that this is a young quartet who have a lot to say about Bartók and so it proves, as they more than have the measure of the quartets oscillating shifts in tempo and dynamics. The Third Quartet has never been up there with my favourites, its seemingly bleak Prima parte being possibly inspired by hearing a performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, but here it is given a performance that made me listen again and again. It once again shows great control and expertise on behalf of the quartet as they move through the various changes of tempo and intensity. The Fifth Quartet is similar in outline to No. 4, but stylistically different, that is perhaps why I find it the most compelling work on the first disc, its opening statement on the cello heralding what is to come, including a short jazz-like refrain. The following slow movement with its occasional whooping strings is played extremely well, especially in the quiet sections which show wonderful control and ensemble work. The work pivots on the central Scherzo, marked Alla burlgarese (vivace); here the Arcadia Quartet make light of Bartók’s “inventive and sometimes humorous use of alternative scales – Dorian, Phrygian, octatonic (alternating whole tones with semitones) – to cast different lights on its central C sharp” and have a real sense of enjoyment in their playing of the folk-dance-like sections, especially in the viola tune. The fourth movement opens with plucked violin strings that are answered by the cello, before going into a more expansive bowed section where the Arcadia Quartet excel in the shimmering effects. The final movement begins with a motif that will dominate the whole movement as it reappears and develops throughout the differing aspects of the music, even in Bartók’s apparent sardonic humour which is in evidence with his inclusion of the ‘barrel-organ’ episode towards the conclusion of the movement.
The Arcadia Quartet is a relatively young group, formed in 2006, and are already winners of some prestigious awards, and with playing like we have here, it is easy to understand why. They show a great deal of control and focus throughout this recording, as well as a mastery of even the tiniest detail of phrasing. This is an ensemble that know each other well and produce a well honed and pleasing performance; yes, some people might prefer the rhythmically taut performance of the Takács Quartet, but as I have said above both approaches have their place; but if asked to recommend a copy of the Bartók String Quartets to someone coming to them anew, I would have no hesitation in recommending this present recording by the Arcadia Quartet over that of the Takács’, their less rigid approach to tempi and phrasing winning the day for me. This is a recording which certainly proves the shop assistants in 1980’s Liverpool wrong, and shows the beauty that can be found in Bartók! The quartet is backed by Chandos’ usual excellent recorded sound, which has a natural warm feel about it, more concert hall than recording studio. It also boasts some excellent documentation including very fine notes on the music by Paul Griffiths and the Arcadia’s own short introduction to their vision of the music. This is an excellent recording, one which I will be revisiting regularly, and one which is quickly becoming my go-to recording of the works.
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