Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kodály and Bartók Quartets from The Alexander String Quartet

In this generous and lavishly presented three disc album, the Alexander String Quartet programs eight of the 20th century's most fascinating string quartets from two composers linked as contemporaries and countrymen, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. Bartók's canon of six quartets have long been a part of the standard repertoire for all the great string quartet ensembles of the past 50 years. Kodály's have been less fortunate, with just a few recordings of his two quartet essays. Combining the two composers' quartet oeuvre is a brilliant stroke, making this recording more than just another Bartók cycle.

Kodály's two string quartets were almost exact contemporaries to Bartók's First and Second Quartets. Paring them allows for some illuminating comparisons. Even Bartók's earliest quartets tend to be highly contrapuntal and more harmonically and structurally complex. Kodály who played violin, viola and cello, produced quartets that were idiomatic and well grounded in form and style. Yet unlike Bartók, his works did not break new ground. Both of Kodály's works, the First Quartet, in particular, sound more like the quartets of Debussy and Ravel and have been combined with them on recordings. French in spirit they may be, but thoroughly tinged with the rhythms, sounds and pungent harmonies of Hungarian folk music, they are unique and totally satisfying works. The third movement of the 1st quartet lets loose with some distinctly Hungarian-like music, very reminiscent of Kodály's masterpiece, the Sonata for Solo Cello.

The Alexanders dig into this music with technically secure, well paced performances; especially important in the Kodály 1st, which at approx 38 minutes can descend into longeurs if not careful. Given their French inclinations, Kodály's quartets come across a tad more relaxed and melodic than Bartók's. The Alexanders realize this, bringing out the innate lyricism and tenderness of the music especially in the second quartet's somewhat threadbare “andante quasi-recitativo” section.

Thoroughly enjoyable, interesting and colorful works that are shamefully neglected. Perhaps this new recording (and one by the Dante Quartet on Hyperion, that I have not heard) will open some eyes and ears to the satisfying charms of these two works.

My (and I am not alone) benchmark for the Bartók quartets is the classic 1963 Julliard set on Sony (Columbia). The Takács and Emerson cycles give them a run for their money in more modern sound and similar performances. Thus the Alexander's cycle on their own Foghorn Classics label enters into some good company and faces some strong competition.

Bartók's quartets are often described as tough, dense and gritty and that would generally be true. The Alexanders' performances are dramatic, lean and intense, but never unpleasant or forced. Clean, clear and on pitch pizzicati are noteworthy throughout the three discs, especially important in the 4th quartet's all pizzicato movement, which comes off swimmingly. The quartet has a fine feel for the folk music elements and relish them at every turn without exaggerating or even detaching them from the overall texture.

Highlights: the mysterious, skittering, hair raising “Prima Parte: Moderato” of the 3rd Quartet. The deeply expressive “Lento” opening movement of the 1st Quartet, with dark, resonant cello and redwood-like viola passages. The aforementioned 4th Quartet scherzo (along with the controlled mayhem of its “Prestissimo con sordino” movement, and the whole dramatic and even demonic 4th quartet for that matter) and the slightly jazz tinged 5th Quartet's scherzo.

As with every Foghorn Classics release I have encountered, complete, legible and intelligent notes are part of the package. Add these always intelligent, intense, musical, satisfying and well recorded performances to the list of recordings that challenge and may surpass the classic Julliard recording. Combine the fine and rare Kodály quartets and you have a special release indeed.

Bartók And Kodály String Quartets Foghorn Classics #2009 3 discs

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