Review by Beagle January 21, 2010 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
|A few years ago I said I’d die happy if the Bartók quartet cycle appeared on SACD – and then I expired slowly but happily as the Párkányí discs appeared, one, two, three. Now I am in fatal raptures again with this thoroughly Hungarian cycle by Mikrokosmos. Two cycles begs a comparison; forgive me if I am guilty of splitting hairs below, because both cycles are quite exciting.
The readiest metric (and the only non-qualitative measure other than price) is timings. As a general principle, the foreigners* navigate the turns at a slower pace than the magyars. The Párkányí timings are consistently longer than those of the Mikrokosmos – but the differences range only from 1 to 8% (among 12 cycles the variation is 10 to 30%). It is nonetheless notable that the “Parks” come in last, twice. But how ought we to interpret these numbers? Does speed indicate confidence and competence, or is speed achieved at the expense of musicality – or are tempi irrelevant, stylistic choices? I’ll leave that question hanging for the moment.
What strikes the ears and the mind isn’t modest differences in tempo, but ‘tone’. I am not referring to being on- or off-pitch; these are all major-league players. By tone I mean the sensuous pleasure one receives directly from the sound, separate from any intellectual pleasure from the greater whole. On recordings, that pleasure is at the mercy of musician, microphone, mastering, medium…. Enough preambling; I can't put my finger on the cause, but I know that I prefer the physical sound on the Praga/Párkányí discs. It’s deep and ethereal where the Hungaroton/Mikrokosmos is dense and slightly adenoidal (and if the tone distracts then the gestalt of the music seems to falter).
Back to the question of tempi: It could have been microphone placement, venue or humidity which created the tone I prefer, but perhaps it was because the Párkányís deliberately lingered to smell the roses and admire the lightning flashes. One can perhaps detect a generosity of spirit in the use of three, rather than two discs (and the amusing Leo Weiner make-weight).
As a certifiable Bartók nut** I of course will treasure both these cycles; the Párkányí discs are a special treat not to be listened to casually – but the Mikrokosmos experience challenges the expectations and illuminates these works with a different, if cooler light. If you are a sane person, you may want to consider that the “Parks” cycle will cost you half-again more than the Hungaroton cycle-in-a-box.
* E.g. Brodsky, Fine Arts, Hagen, Lindsays – but the Emersons test the rule: always in the vanguard of this non-race and coming in first, twice among timings for a dozen cycles.
** There are limits to my insanity. My recent disappointment with a Carmina Quartet disc will help me resist acquiring their Bartók Quartet 1 & 2 – unless perverse curiosity gets the better of instinct.
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