String Quartets: No. 1; No. 3; No. 5
ARTEK 0060 (77:24)
Here is the awaited follow-up and completion to the Euclid Quartet’s Bartók string quartet cycle. The first installment, containing the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Quartets received my very strong recommendation in issue 34:4. Hard to believe though, that was two-and-a-half years ago. What’s odd is that this second volume was recorded in July of 2011, but apparently has only now been released.
Noted at the time of the previous review was that the Euclid Quartet was the quartet-in-residence at Indiana University South Bend and, as far as I know, it still is. Also expressed previously was my opinion that the Euclid Quartet runs the Emerson Quartet a close race when it comes to precision of ensemble and clarity of texture, but that the Euclid doesn’t quite match the Emerson in making the execution of these hair-raisingly difficult scores sound easy. But perhaps, I mused, that’s a plus rather than a minus in music which is often fierce and feral.
Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 is not exactly a product of the composer’s youth; he was 28 in 1909 when he wrote it, and like Janáček’s “Intimate Letters” Quartet, Bartók’s score was also prompted by an unrequited love, namely, for Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom the composer had a brief and apparently stormy fling.
While Bartók’s official String Quartet No. 1 is neither his earliest effort in the medium—two earlier quartets from 1896, one in B Major, the other in C Minor, are lost—nor the most barbed and untamed of the six numbered quartets, not a few of its passages foreshadow the sharply dissonant harmonies and irregular stamping rhythms suggested by the Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk music Bartók collected and studied.
Seventeen years elapsed between the writing of the First Quartet and the Third, a work Bartók composed in 1926. Not surprisingly, the score is now more daring in terms of its harmonic and rhythmic content, not to mention in its use of techniques that identify the composer as surely as fingerprints. Listen, for example, to the sul ponticello bowing and the slithering glissandos at the beginning of the section marked “Coda:
.” Formally, however, the Third Quartet is also the most tightly organized of Bartók’s six quartets, and the shortest. Though it’s usually banded in four tracks on record and CD, Bartók conceived the quartet as a single-movement work, with the first section, marked “Prima parte” serving as exposition; the second section, marked “Seconda parte,” serving as development; the third section, marked “Ricapitulazione della prima parte,” being self-explanatory; and the fourth and final section, marked “Coda,” serving as a brief closing. The entire quartet (in this performance) takes just 15:16.
The Fifth Quartet, composed in 1934 on commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, is as spacious as the Third Quartet is compact; and it finds Bartók once again exploring one of his favorite structural devices, a five-movement arch form in which recapitulating sections are presented in reverse mirroring melodic motion and/or key sequence within one or more movements, while movements 4 and 5 in their entirety reflect back upon movements 1 and 2, with the middle movement, 3, functioning as the arch’s keystone. In this case, the keystone movement is a rhythmically complex “Scherzo: Alla bulgarese,” in which 10 eighth-notes per bar are grouped as follows: 5+2+3.
Having now heard the Euclid Quartet’s second and concluding volume in its Bartók quartet cycle, I remain as favorably impressed as I was after hearing the ensemble’s first installment containing the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Quartets. The Euclid’s website lists these Bartók albums, in addition to a disc of quartets by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and a disc of quartets by Austrian composer Hugo Kauder (1888–1972), but Amazon lists only the Bartók and Kauder entries. I haven’t been able to find the Beethoven and Mendelssohn album.
It is hoped that the Euclid Quartet’s players will record more extensively, for based on their performances in these Bartók quartets, they are as fine an American string quartet ensemble as any on the scene today, among which I would count the Emerson, Pacifica, Alexander, Fine Arts, Cypress, Arianna, and Jupiter Quartets. Any ensemble that can more than hold its own in Bartók’s string quartets with recordings by the Emerson and Juilliard Quartets and, in some cases, surpass them in expressivity and points of interpretation, deserves our serious attention.