Review by Beagle February 3, 2007 (12 of 14 found this review helpful)
|Please see Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Bartók: Bartók the Magyar
My prayers have been answered, not only by two-thirds of the Bartók Six Quartets on SACD, but by very good SACDs. These recordings are spacious and clear, neither harsh nor overly mellow. I am listening in stereo, and cello and the viola have substance, but a modest addition of ambience from my powered Hafler circuit enhances the lower strings, so I imagine multi-channel will do the same. This sounds like a neutral studio space, but – my one complaint – neither case nor liner notes specify place or date….
The playing here is equal to any other version I own: Magyar (1961), Novák (1965), Emerson (1988). As with the first two quartets, the Parkanýi and the two hungarian quartets do not rush Béla’s magyar melancholy – but the Emersons are out to set a new world speed record. It may be significant that the nascent Parkanýí/Orlando Quartet was coached by Sándor Végh, and the Végh Quartet is known for comfort, not for speed.
A FEW NOTES ABOUT THE LAST QUARTETS
Bartók’s last two quartets are perhaps the Middle Quartets of an artist who died too soon to write Late Quartets. Beethoven and Haydn wrote their greatest quartets as their bodies failed, but Bartók’s last quartets are written at the peak of his vigour in a whirlwind of success. In 1933, his Second Piano Concerto had made him the talk of Frankfurt, but by 1939 his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Second Violin Concerto and Divertimento for Orchestra had made him a household word in New York. He wrote Quartet no. 5 in 1934 as an artist vindicated, and no. 6 in 1939 as the conqueror of the civilised world. A year later, Béla and his second wife were lured to America by a small grant from Columbia University which soon dried up, leaving them virtually destitute. Except for a few admirers, America was unreceptive. By 1945 Bartók was bed-ridden, dying from undiagnosed leukemia and scribbling his swan-song, the Sonata for Solo Violin. “The trouble is, that I have to go now with so much left to say.”. A year after his death, America embraced his music with enthusiasm. In 1949, the Juilliard Quartet presented his six quartets as an integral cycle.
QUARTET NO. 5
This work was born into a world acquainted with serialism and jazz, and the first movement has a nervous energy which reflects that environment somewhat. That Early Thirties atmosphere disappears entirely in second movement – which, to my ears, is the most beautiful music Béla ever wrote. Here he reaches back beyond contemporary idiom at least a thousand years into modal music of the early church. The third movement brings us back to the current day with a jazzy, dancey syncopation. But this movement is a wistful and seductive flapper, where the first movement was black-shirt marching up the stairs. The third and fourth movement are pure Bartók, loaded with delightful pizzicato effects and owing nothing to any era. In the final movement the black-shirt is back, going from door to door and asking some very unsettling questions. I don’t see political allegory in this quartet, but Béla was nobody’s fool, and he knew what was going on just across the border.
QUARTET NO. 6
After experimenting with 3- and 5-movement structures, Bartók fits his last quartet into the classic 4-movement form. However, the four movements are not a classical mix, e.g. fast, slow, scherzo and finale. Instead Béla visits the same musical material four times, viewing it from four different aspects. All four movements are marked ‘Mesto’ (mournful), but the first is heavily mournful, the second resolutely mournful, the third ironically mournful, and the last just plain mournful. The same 8-note motif starts each movement (beginning with F, C, G and A respectively); it is a sad little tune moving in baby-steps from key to adjacent key. But each movement has its perky moments, as the spirit rises to the challenge of… what? Béla is 58 years old, and the subscript reads ‘to the composer’s mother’. This sad-serious-ironic piece is an elegy and a wake for the sickly child’s caregiver and first piano teacher.*
* I am reminded here of Schnittke’s macabre but beautiful Third Quartet, written on his mother’s death.
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