The Absolute Sound Super Disc List.
Throughout the ages, the string quartet with its usual forces has always been regarded as the crowning discipline among all forms of composition. Poetically described by Carl Maria von Weber as the “nude of musical art” and by Goethe as a “cultured conversation among equals”, the genre reflects the creative art of important composers from the Viennese Classicism right up to modern times.
Bartók’s six String Quartets, written over the span of roughly 30 years, demonstrate his development as a composer in the purest form. “In the Quartets,” stated Bartók, “I condense to the extreme.” In the very first quartet, which is orientated on traditional formal structures, Bartók travels down his own path by lending different weight to the various formal sections, rejecting repeats, and joining the movements together by means of bridging passages.
The second quartet is exemplary for its intentional distance from the Romantic in favor of a composition based on simple folksongs, in which Bartók attempts to grasp the folk sound in his compositional structures, whereby he never quite disregards the tonal rules but certainly begins to free himself from them.
“The Juilliard Quartet burst upon the international musical scene in the 1950s with a series of acclaimed performances of the six Bartók string quartets. Five decades later they are still renowned for their performances of this music, and no one interested in this superb group can afford to pass up this set, digitally recorded in 1981 and now available at budget price. These quartets have been very frequently recorded over the years, but few more recent versions match the Juilliard in terms of both interpretive and technical excellence.”
The new richness in the third quartet with regard to counterpoint, melody and harmony as well as tone, is described by the sociologist and composer Theodor W. Adorno with allusion to the musical creativity of the Hungarian peasants as a “tent camp of improvisation”, which ventures here and there towards the avant-garde. As a contrast, the fourth quartet is almost relaxed in tone, the form and compositional technique is simple and uncomplicated in expression (Ludwig Finscher). For the first time, Bartók employs his idea of an ‘arch’ structure in which Hungarian folklore and the classical-romantic chamber-music forms are amalgamated. Like the fourth, the fifth quartet is also written in arch form, but in contrast to the fourth it is more cheerful and transparent. The sixth and final quartet was the last piece that Bartók wrote in Hungary before emigrating to the United States of America. All four movements have a mesto introduction, which induce a melancholy mood and seem to reflect the composer’s personal circumstances.
The Juilliard Quartet was the very first American ensemble to record the six quartets in roughly 1950, and they took up the challenge to record the works once again in the mid-1960s, in order to give each of the unique works a conclusive performance. With firm bowing, and a dry and direct tone, the musicians dissect the substantial power of these works to reflect all the different aspects of the manuscripts.
“Among an assortment of excellent recordings, especially those by the Takács, Tokyo, and Emerson Quartets, the Juilliard Quartet’s 1981 presentation of the six Bartók quartets has considerable competition. The ensemble, with several personnel changes over the years, has recorded the cycle twice before, in 1950 and 1963, so this version must contend with its predecessors as well. These are the Juilliard’s most forward and exposed performances, and the all-digital recordings have some noises that may distract. Compared to the superlative 1963 interpretations, these readings are uneven and less refined. When matched against the ground-breaking recordings of 1950, they are more beautiful on the surface, but less invigorating and brash.
With that said, this set still has vivid color, high energy, and genuine passion going for it, coming from fresh readings and a perspective other quartets can only envy. There are points of comparison, particularly the last movement of the second quartet and the opening of the fourth, which show that little has changed in the Juilliard’s understanding of these works. But there are many revelations and felicitous moments that all worthwhile performances must have. This set is recommended as a good second choice when none of the others are available.”
-AllMusic Review by Blair Sanderson
- 180g Virgin Vinyl
- 3LP Box Set
- High Quality Pressing
- Pure Analogue
- Audiophile Mastering
- Cut By Kevin Gray From Original Master Tapes
ID: Speakers Corner Records – D3S 717