BARTÓK: Complete String Quartets (Nos. 1-6) / Arcadia String Quartet / Chandos 10992-93
Many decades ago, when the Earth was young and I could still walk and even owned a car, I learned a life lesson that I’ve never forgotten: never assume that only big-name artists on high-powered record labels always give you the best performances of classical music. And yes, for me this even extended to my early idol Arturo Toscanini, who I was to discover didn’t always relax enough to give you the most incisive or interesting performances. But the one that did it for me was, after years of being told by Famous Critics who wrote for Important Magazines that the 1957 recording of Gounod’s Faust with de los Angeles, Gedda and Christoff was the Best Ever, I ran across the old 1929 recording of the opera in English by Miriam Licette, Heddle Nash, Robert Easton and Harold Williams, conducted by Thomas Beecham. This latter recording had so much more charm, elegance and real presence about it that I realized you should never take other performances for granted.
I begin this review with that statement in order to lead into the excellence of this new set of the Bartók quartets played by Arcadia. For 20 years, I was convinced that the Emerson String Quartet’s interpretations on Deutsche Grammophon were the berries, in part because of their intense, powerful readings, but also in part because, again, the Famous Critics who wrote for Important Magazines all moved it into the #1 spot and refused to relinquish its place. In recent years, however, I’ve come to discover the San Francisco-based Alexander String Quartet, whose leader (British-born cellist Alexander or Sandy Walsh-Wilson) has built one of the most interesting and penetrating quartets in the entire world. For the most part, I would place their work even above the much-touted Belcea Quartet, good as they are, as well as several others. The Alexander Quartet’s Bartók cycle is now my clear choice for this music.
That being said, one should not ignore or discount the excellent work done here by the Arcadia Quartet, which also does not have a high international profile (though they are somewhat better known than Alexander). These are highly sensitive and sensitized readings, and in the stark, dramatic passages (of which there are many, starting even with Quartet No. 1), they give their all. As I pointed out in my previous review of Bartók playing his own piano music, his “real” style is not always the one we hear nowadays. Yes, he was a pioneer in infusing Hungarian music with edgy, dissonant chords and equally edgy melodic lines to match, but even the Magyar music on which he modeled this transformation was lyrical music. It had a legato line; it “sang,” even on the piano; and it was fluid. The transformation of Bartók style began in the 1960s but really shifted course considerably from the late 1970s onward into performances that were spikier, with a harder edge and almost brittle note-to-note progressions. Nowadays, there are only a very few musicians who really understand how Bartók is supposed to sound, and I have praised these musicians in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music.
To my ears, the Arcadia Quartet takes a midway approach to these works. Their style is indeed a bit edgier than the Alexander Quartet’s, but does not avoid a legato sweep quite so much as the Emerson Quartet. And there is another thing I like about these performances: the first violin has a slightly thin, very bright tone, which falls in line with such famed Hungarian violinists as Josef Szigeti, for whom Bartók wrote Contrasts. This, too, was influenced by Magyar folk musicians, and we need to appreciate and embrace it as an integral part of Bartók’s style.
The Arcadia Quartet uses a very “springy” rhythm in their playing, i.e. in the third (and last) movement of the first quartet, which almost but not quite bears a relationship to ragtime or jazz rhythm. This, however, is another modern invention. Although Bartók wrote the clarinet part of Contrasts for Benny Goodman, he actually hated jazz and in fact purposely tried to show Goodman up by writing music so hard to play that the famed clarinetist said to him, “I need three hands to play this!” (Bartók was privately pleased to have shown up Goodman; like so many cultured Europeans of his time, he looked down his nose at all pop culture and referred to the clarinetist as a “jazznik.”) But to our ears today, the strong accents on the syncopations register as perfectly fine. Even I have no objection to it; in fact, it gives the music some real excitement and helps to bind the structure together very well. The second movement of the Quartet No. 3 is played as if on tenterhooks, and here I was a bit less convinced that this was what Bartók wanted. It sounded more Stravinskian to me, and for whatever reason, Bartók also hated Stravinsky. (Let’s be honest: he may have been a great genius, but he was a fairly unpleasant man.)
But this is merely my personal reaction to these performances based on my experience of how Bartók, more often than not, wanted his own music to go, based on his own recorded performances and those of his contemporaries. Comparing Arcadia’s performances to those of the Alexander Quartet, one hears slightly slower tempi and more accented phrasing from the former. The Alexander Quartet does not lack excitement, but they tend to be what I would call less fussy. All of the written accents are observed and clearly heard, but they do not italicize them nearly as much as Arcadia (or Emerson) does. As a result, their performances have a tighter structure. One might best characterize their different approaches by saying that Alexander gives you an almost neo-Classical reading while Arcadia takes a neo-Romantic approach.
Both are certainly valid, and I am sure many listeners will greatly enjoy Arcadia’s approach, at least as an alternative to the Emerson and Alexander sets, but for me, reading the scores as the music is being played, the Alexander Quartet is more “home ground” whereas Arcadia is an interesting alternative. It’s the difference between hearing an exciting literalist like Michael Korstick playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas as opposed to the imaginative, somewhat rhetorically phrased performances of Annie Fischer. I love both of them, and would not live without either, but if push came to shove I would pick Korstick as “home ground.”
The same thing is true of this set. I like Alexander better for their more straightforward readings, but I also like Arcadia because of the different inflections they use.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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