December 27, 2018
(++++) A LIFE IN STRINGS
Bartók: String Quartets (complete). Arcadia Quartet (Ana Török and Răsvan Dumitru, violins; Traian Boală, viola; Zsolt Török, cello). Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).
Listeners interested in a single group of works through which to approach the music of Bartók can find it in his six string quartets, which collectively span most of his compositional life: he lived from 1881 to 1945 and the quartets date from 1908 to 1939. They tend to be thought of as “difficult” music, not only for performers but also for listeners, and certainly all of them have thorny aspects that prevent them from being immediately accessible. They are works that must, in a sense, be learned both by the players and by the audience. But they are certainly worth the investment of time, and a number of fine recordings of the set have shown, each in its own way, just how well these complicated and sometimes forbidding pieces repay listeners’ attention.
The new Chandos recording by the Romanian members of the Arcadia Quartet stands up very well in some strong company. The quartet was founded in 2005 by four students at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj-Napoco, the second-largest city in Romania, and has grown in stature and maturity in its dozen-plus years of existence. The Bartók cycle is in fact a sort of coming-of-age proposition for quartets willing to tackle it, and it comes across in this recording as a set of pieces through which the performers find numerous common threads despite the works’ outward differences of style and approach.
The Bartók quartets benefit from being heard chronologically until one becomes accustomed to them, which in the case of this recording requires constantly changing the CDs or flipping back and forth between them, since Nos. 1, 3 and 5 are on the first disc and Nos. 2, 4 and 6 on the second. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, since it ought to encourage listeners to take some time between quartets to contemplate what they have just heard and prepare themselves aurally for what is to come.
The Arcadia Quartet views Bartók as a poetic composer, not quite neo-Romantic but not far from that designation. This is a rather unusual approach to someone whose music often comes across as acerbic when it is not folklike, but it is an approach that pays numerous dividends in this recording. The first quartet (1908-09) is filled with dramatic passages and a kind of starkness that is leavened by the elegance of the performers’ approach. The shifts in tempo and dynamics seem to give the Arcadia Quartet members no difficulty: their ensemble work is nearly flawless, and they provide this quartet with a sense of forward momentum and rhythmic flow that serves the music well. The first quartet’s final movement has an attractive springiness here that is almost jazzlike, although not quite – and the “not quite” is important, since Bartók, unlike many other 20th-century composers, loathed jazz. The Arcadia Quartet here shows how he found his own way to something approximating it but certainly not identical to it.
The passion and intensity of the wartime second quartet (1915-17) come through effectively here, with tempo choices that are a touch on the slow side and as a result allow the beauty of the music to emerge despite the darkness within which it was composed. It is Quartet No. 3 (1927) that is really bleak, especially in what Bartók labeled its Prima parte, and here too the tempo changes and substantial variations in intensity are key to a successful performance and receive their due from these performers. The best word to describe this particular performance is “controlled”: the players have an overarching sense of the music’s style and of Bartók’s concerns at this point in his life, and there is an inexorable quality about the way the Arcadia Quartet moves through the work, finding considerable depth even though this is the shortest piece in the Bartók quartet cycle.
The fourth quartet (1928) is more substantive and features a central slow movement that, although marked Non troppo lento, is the work’s emotional heart. The Arcadia Quartet’s drawing-out of the solo sections for first violin and cello is particular effective here, emphasizing the inward-looking aspects of the music and producing a particularly fine contrast with the last two movements – the pizzicato section of the fourth movement is a highlight, and the final movement’s intensity comes through equally well. Quartet No. 5 (1934) is also exceptionally well-played, notably in the Adagio molto, where the quiet sections are outstanding, showcasing both the players’ excellent sense of ensemble and their ability to convey emotional subtlety through careful attention to dynamics. The central Scherzo of this quartet presents particular challenges that the Arcadia Quartet handles with aplomb: the movement centers on C-sharp but refuses to use it as a traditional tonic note, as Bartók plays subtle games with alternative scales such as the Dorian and Phrygian. True, the humor of what the composer does here is rather rarefied, but these plyers make it more down-to-earth than do most others, appearing to have a genuinely good time with the material and bringing special bounce to the sections that sound more or less like folk dances. There is humor in this quartet’s finale, too, and again the players pick up on it effectively, making its sardonic elements clear. And then, in the sixth quartet (1939), in which all four movements bear the marking Mesto (“sad,” with an overlay in this context of “thoughtful” or “pensive”) as the world teeters on the brink of another devastating war, the Arcadia Quartet shows firm, solid control throughout, especially notably in the difficult opening of the third movement and the way it contrasts with the Burletta section that follows.
This is a quartet whose members are firmly in control of their individual parts as well as their massed sections: the performers seem not only to have grown together since the group’s formation but also to have, in a sense, grown up together. They allow Bartók more flexibility and even a touch more rubato that these quartets tend to elicit; this is why the performances have a slight Romantic flavor. But there is plenty of acerbity here as well, and the performers pay particular attention to the frequent accentuation marked in the scores – which gives this music much of its “Bartókian” flavor. The overall poetic quality of the performances is perhaps their most notable feature, but the players’ sensitivity to the quartets’ drama and humor is also highly attractive, and their involvement in the material is practically tangible. There is no “best” recording of the Bartók string quartets, which, like so much other great music, contain so many elements that varying ensembles can emphasize different ones to produce highly distinctive performances that are all equally valid. Indeed, the same ensemble is likely to play these (and other) quartets differently as it revisits them over time, so there is not even such a thing as a single quartet’s definitive reading of the music. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, these Arcadia Quartet recordings are highly pleasurable to hear and contain many points of detail that are as attractive as their overall sweep and warmth. This is a fine introduction to the quartets – and thus to Bartók’s multi-decade stylistic development – and is also a fine addition to the collection of anyone who already knows the music and is interested in hearing it in a new and very attractive and involving way.