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Thread: Bartok string quartets: Your favorite recording?

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    Senior Member Omicron9's Avatar
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    Default Bartok string quartets: Your favorite recording?

    Greetings, fellow Bartokians.

    The Bartok string quartets are probably my favorite set of quartets in the history of ever. I have several recordings of the complete set, but am always on the lookout for another.

    What do you have; what do you recommend, and why?

    TIA,
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    Senior Member Kjetil Heggelund's Avatar
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    I only have the Emersons, and had it for 25 years. I like it since I "grew up on it" and would recommend it to people interested in Bartok, who is an awesome composer! I don't often compare recordings of chamber music as much as solo repertoir. I'm sure there are several great recordings. What I have "discovered" in stringquartetrecordings is the different reverb. Anything goes (maybe/almost)

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    There is a set recorded by the Rubin Quartet issued on Brillant Classics a few years ago. While I think that they disbanded the set my be still around. The thing that I like about the is the fact that dig into the music.The sound may be to some tastes dry, but some how it seems to fit the music. It was issued as a low cost recording.

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    Senior Member realdealblues's Avatar
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    My two picks...

    Takacs Quartet

    Bartok - 6 String Quartets - Takacs Quartet.jpg

    Hungarian String Quartet
    Last edited by realdealblues; May-11-2017 at 19:18.

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    My first was the very fine one with the Juilliard and is still an outstanding recording.
    The Takacs is not my favorite in the Beethoven quartets but in Bartok they are very convincing.
    The Alban Berg quartet are playing as always but my first choice is the oldest with The Juilliard quartet.
    They recorded it three times,the first is mono and the second one is stereo.The last recording is not as good as the two first recordings (IMO)







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    Any of the Juilliard Quartet's recordings.

    The Emerson is incredible from a technical standpoint, but just like their complete Beethoven Quartet recordings, I don't hear any emotional involvement.

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    Sr. Moderator TurnaboutVox's Avatar
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    I have the Tokyo Quartet and the Takacs Quartet in nos. 1-6, and the Zehetmair Quartet in #5 (a disc ruined by grotesquely over-reverberant recording, which apparently stems from the choice of venue).

    Though the Takacs Quartet's version are very serviceable and enjoyable my clear preference is for the Tokyo Quartet. They are incisive and precise in style. The box set won the Gramophone chamber award in 1981.

    Last edited by TurnaboutVox; May-13-2017 at 15:25.

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    One of my favorite conductors ever is Fritz Reiner.He was a friend of Bartok who had been his teacher.I recall that Reiner was very fond of that first(1949?)recording by the Juilliard Quartet.The Juilliard played the last movement of the 6th quartet at Reiner`s funeral in 1963.

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    Senior Member Omicron9's Avatar
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    My versions:

    Emerson
    Juiliard ('63 and '81 cycles)
    Tackas
    Keller
    Berg
    Vegh
    Belcea

    I'm not sure I have a favorite. Each performance has its strengths and weaknesses. I think I find myself reaching for the Emerson set more often than others. Maybe it's the most even performance overall for me? Not sure.
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    Senior Member Omicron9's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TurnaboutVox View Post
    I have the Tokyo Quartet and the Takacs Quartet in nos. 1-6, and the Zehetmair Quartet in #5 (a disc ruined by grotesquely over-reverberant recording, which apparently stems from the choice of venue).

    Though the Takacs Quartet's version are very serviceable and enjoyable my clear preference is for the Tokyo Quartet. They are incisive and precise in style. The box set won the Gramophone chamber award in 1981.


    I know the Tokyo recorded the cycle for RCA Red Seal in the (maybe) early '90s? Is the DG version a different recording? Thanks!
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    I have the Vegh quartet which are the one's I liked the best from Emerson, Juiliard ('63 and '81 cycles) Takacs and Belcea

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    Sr. Moderator TurnaboutVox's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Omicron9 View Post
    I know the Tokyo recorded the cycle for RCA Red Seal in the (maybe) early '90s? Is the DG version a different recording? Thanks!
    The RCA recording seems to be a different one, with different Tokyo Quartet personnel:

    This performance is best characterized by the old joke: "they're playing Bartok, and Bartok is losing." It's not the fault of the core TSQ members, but rather that of [Peter] Oundjian, whose playing I find agressive rather than spirited or assertive. Better to save your money for the (also OOP) *first* TSQ recording which was released, for about fifteen minutes, by Deutsche Grammophon in the early 1990s.

    Amazon reviewer
    The DG recordings were made in 1981 and re-released on CD in 1997. Briefly, apparently.

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    Senior Member lextune's Avatar
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    I have the Emerson, Takacs, and Berg sets. I too would like to get to know more, (love Bartok dearly).

    Of the three sets I have, I rate Takacs first. I do enjoy both other sets too though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by TurnaboutVox View Post
    The RCA recording seems to be a different one, with different Tokyo Quartet personnel:



    The DG recordings were made in 1981 and re-released on CD in 1997. Briefly, apparently.
    Thanks, Turnabout. I'll keep an eye out for the DG version.
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    Senior Member Dirge's Avatar
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    I flirt with every recording of the Bartók quartets that I can get my hands on, but I always end up returning home to the Tokyo Quartet’s complete set on DG (’75–’80)—not to be confused with the group’s later set on RCA (’93–’95). What keeps me coming back to the Tokyo set is the group’s faithful but flexible/tautly resilient approach to these works and the engaging sense of inner dialog/debate and ebb & flow that results. This is achieved through playing that is as nimble and responsive as it is precise and incisive—no mean trick, especially in such highly wrought integral structures as these—and also through masterful maintenance of tension throughout (which is of great importance to me in any music, especially in Bartók). Listeners who want their Bartók to have an earthy/folk-y character and a Hungarian accent will be disappointed, however, as the Tokyo Quartet takes as cosmopolitan an approach to these works as one will encounter. The group is wholly attuned to the last four quartets, where Bartók has fully subsumed folk and other influences into a modern language all his own, but the group fares nearly as well in the eclectic and as yet unsettled language of the Janus-like First, where Bartók looks back to the late Romantic past (Wagner, Strauss, etc.) even as he looks forward to an uncertain future. The dramatic/tragic Second Quartet strikes me as the road not taken in Bartók’s musical journey, and I’ve always had a special liking for it; if the Tokyo Quartet isn’t as urgent as it might be in the first and second movements, the group generates and maintains tension so well and otherwise plays so well that it succeeds even so. My only quibble about the group’s playing per se is that the first violinist tends to be slightly too prominent, both musically and in terms of instrumental balance, his vibrato a tad cloying at times.

    My favorite alternatives/supplements include …

    :: Juilliard Quartet [Columbia ’49] ~ I’m a sucker for the kind of intensely earnest playing that marks these performances, with structural concerns trumping aesthetic ones (not that they’re necessarily at odds), so this set starts off on the right foot from my perspective. That said, I’d have thought that the young Juilliard Quartet’s hard-won, highly wrought playing would be ill-suited to the compressed intricacy of the Third Quartet, but I find the performance confoundingly engaging; I’m especially impressed by the very high level of tension that the group is able to generate and maintain throughout. While the performance of the Third Quartet is the highlight of the set for me, I’m content with the rest of the performances as well. Sony France made excellent transfers of quartets 3, 4 & 5, which it released on a “grand répertoire” disc, but it hasn’t seen fit to transfer/release the rest so far as I know. Pearl, West Hill Radio Archives, and Pristine Classics have transferred/released the complete set.

    :: Végh Quartet [Columbia/Angel ’54] ~ The Végh Quartet may not win any awards for technical proficiency, but it’s tough to beat for phrasing and characterization. Whether it’s the Hungarian thing or not, the Végh’s phrasing sounds as natural to Bartók as I’ve heard, and characterization is strong and believable without exaggeration (of the kind that afflicts the group’s 1972 recording for Astrée). I’m not sure that the playing here is any more precise and accurate than it is in 1972 (the difference in sound quality makes it hard to judge), but focus and concentration is better, which allows them to generate and maintain a higher level of tension. For me, the playing is more than good enough given the quality of the interpretations, but listeners with other priorities may not be so tolerant. The set has been transferred/released in mono by Music & Arts and Naxos Historical Archives (download only), but I know of no licensed release from the original mono tapes. Praga has recently issued the set in stereo from what it claims are original (experimental?) studio stereo tapes. I’ve read a few reviews of the release, but none helpfully address the quality of the recorded sound.

    :: Juilliard Quartet [CBS ’63] ~ This, the third incarnation of the Juilliard Quartet (it features a different cellist and second violinist than the original incarnation), is the ultimate representative of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about, and its rightly famous 1963 set sets the standard for rigor, precision, trenchancy, and single-mindedness. The group essentially takes relatively straightforward but scrupulously planned interpretations and executes the living bejesus out of them. The inner dialog/debate of the Tokyo Quartet is here replaced by inner voices in complete lockstep. It’s all very calculated and premeditated, but it’s carried out with such cold-blooded veracity and efficiency—accentuated/exacerbated by the close, dry, clinical recorded sound—that you can’t not listen to it. Warmth? Charm? Cuddliness? None, none, and not much. I admire more than enjoy this set, but it deserves mention for its uncompromising ethic and trenchant commitment to the cause.

    :: Tátrai Quartet [Hungaroton ’66] ~ The Tátrai Quartet offers exceptionally sinewy playing of great linear continuity and lyrical intensity, and all four players produce a distinctive silvery tone that is quite appealing. The sinewy/linear playing comes at a cost to incisiveness and rhythmic edge, though that cost is amazingly small, and maintaining the silvery tone comes at a cost to tonal variety, but these are performances to be reckoned with. Phrasing and characterization are quite idiomatic and “Hungarian” in their way, but they’re less varied and multifaceted than they might be as a result of being tailored to fit the Tátrai sinewy/linear/lyrical sound mold. It’s a unique and fascinating alternative set, with excellent mid-’60s analog sound, but it’s perhaps too stylized for a general recommendation.

    :: Zehetmair Quartett ~ No. 4 [ECM ’99] & No. 5 [ECM ’06] ~ The Zehetmair Quartett handles the technical demands of the Fourth Quartet with aplomb and plays with great flexibility and independence of parts while employing a very wide dynamic range; indeed, I’m inclined to say that they play too dynamically and with too much flexibility and independence, but it all holds together somehow and makes for a fascinating and exciting listen. The group’s later recording of the Fifth Quartet is cut from the same cloth but doesn’t hold together quite as well to my ears, and it’s undermined by an excessively reverberant acoustic setting. Still, if you like the Zehetmair Quartett’s account of the Fourth, you’ll definitely want to hear its account of the Fifth—and it’s coupled to a great account of Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22.

    Interesting non-favorites include …

    :: Végh Quartet [Astrée ’72] ~ This second Végh Quartet set is often held up as the epitome of folk-y Hungarianism in this music, but I find the playing to be a bit over-characterized at times, sounding almost too Hungarian in the way that Maurice Chevalier acts almost too French. Otherwise, execution is more than good enough to put the group’s interpretations across, even if tension is not well managed/maintained and intonation is a bit iffy, especially from Végh himself. If you can tolerate a few flies in your soup, these venerable performances offer a lot of savvy insights and are very easy to like. The tension being not well managed/maintained is the fly that I can’t tolerate.

    :: Alban Berg Quartett [EMI ’83–’86] ~ The ABQ plays in a rich, polished Viennese manner that’s not expected in these works, but it plays with such sovereign command that you’re compelled to give it a listen, at least for a while—it’s especially nice to hear the cellist come across so well. Interpretively, the group seems to consider Bartók a kindred spirit of Alban Berg (think Lyric Suite), and it gives his works something of a Second Viennese School treatment. Unfortunately, the group doesn’t differentiate among the six decidedly different works as much as it might, and a certain one-size-fits-all feeling creeps into the proceedings when heard in short order. It’s not the Bartók of my mind’s ear, but it’s compellingly played if not idiomatically, or even sympathetically, interpreted. The recorded sound is beautifully balanced and naturally distanced and blended, with less clarity and detail than ideal, but no digital glare.

    :: Emerson Quartet [DG ’88] ~ Compelling virtuosity in the service of aggressively generic characterization. These performances are as hard to embrace as they are to fault, but I keep the set around just because.

    :: Keller Quartet [Erato ’93/’94] ~ Everything here is well-executed and idiomatically phrased in a more polished/urbane, less earthy/sitting-around-the-campfire way than you’ll find in the Végh Quartet’s ’72 set, but the playing is noticeably subdued at times, with forcefulness and dynamism dialed back a notch or two or three. This is certainly the result of an overthunk/ill-conceived interpretive decision rather than any lack of energy/ambition on the part of the Keller Quartet, but it tends to suck the life out of what could have been a winning set of performances. As it is, the best playing here only serves to remind you of what’s missing from the subdued playing—very frustrating. Curiously, the Hagen Quartett’s set on DG (’95/’98) is similarly undermined by bouts of subdued playing.

    :: Takács Quartet [Decca ’96] ~ The exuberant Takács Quartet gives robust, boldly characterized performances that threaten to burst at the seams. Tone/timbre, individually and collectively, is as rich, full, and colorful as it could be, complementing gregarious phrasing of the most crowd-pleasing idiomatic kind—and it’s all captured in exceptionally vivid larger-than-life recorded sound. Indeed, the playing is often suggestive of a small string orchestra, bringing Bartók’s Divertimento to mind on occasion. Execution/proficiency is excellent on the whole, but rhythmic delivery isn’t as taut as it might be—not surprising given the freedom and flexibility of the playing. Unfortunately, the playing tends to be expressively/emotionally overwrought, with drama verging on melodrama. So while I can well understand the great popularity of this set, for me, an ear-grabbing initial impression eventually gives way to too much of a good thing.

    :: Chiara Quartet [Azica ’16] ~ This curious new set features playing that is marked by a strong sense of inner dialog within an exceedingly flexible/stretchable framework. Rubber-armed phrasing in cahoots with an eccentric temporal/rhythmic sensibility tends to induce an exaggerated ebb & flow, a sort of pulsing undulation, to the musical flow that might make listeners with delicate constitutions a wee bit woozy. When this ebbing & flowing isn’t dominating your attention, the sheer bendiness of the phrasing is. That the group can play this way and manage to hold everything together is impressive in its own right, but the style of play is the focus of my attention no matter how hard I try to get beyond it.

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