Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Life Story in Music - Bartok's Quartets (CD)

Bartok: The String Quartets
by the Takacs Quartet (CD: Decca, 1998)

The wonderful thing about Bartok’s six string quartets is that they are simultaneously integral and distinct; they were written in very different circumstances, each embodying a quite specific real-life situation for the composer and a particular phase in his musical ambitions. And yet for this very reason, taken collectively, they chart and encapsulate Bartok’s whole life and career – ranging full circle from simple romanticism to vibrant experimentalism and back in the end to lush tonality. Thus they really belong together in a set rather than as individual recordings, despite the span of years over which they were composed.

The 1998 digital recording by the Takacs Quartet is quite outstanding in both musical and engineering terms. The Takacs is particularly successful in bringing out the intended “gypsy” inflections in many of the movements – an area in which otherwise fine interpeters of other nationalities have lacked the full cultural immersion necessary to do proper justice to such an important strand in Bartok’s staggering musical vision.

None of these quartets is “easy listening” – even the more traditionally structured compositions make considerable demands of the listener – but in the long term they amply repay any amount of effort invested in exploring their inexhaustible depths.

By the same token, the Quartets are probably not the best introduction to Bartok’s work for the beginner. A good place to start is the remarkable “Concerto for Orchestra” from his mellow final period, followed perhaps by some of the music for a larger ensemble, such as his “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”. But as soon as you feel ready to face a challenging but beautiful exploration into the heart of the greatest composer of the twentieth century, his quartets are waiting and the Takacs set could hardly be bettered.

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