If ever there is perfection in musical performance, this recording has to be one. The level of technical execution Emerson String Quartet has achieved here is almost beyond belief. The Bartókian energy flows out of focus, precision and razor-sharp clarity in an organic fashion, not from the "rough edges" of tone production and rhythmic drive. Simply put: I have never heard of a more perfect ensemble work of any string quartet performance, live or recorded, by any group in any repertoire.(*)
That said, some people will question Emerson's interpretive decision. Every bow movement, every tone, is polished to almost maximum.(**) All the chords are perfectly blended, and sound like one chord instead of 4 voices mixed. Needless to say, the intonation is impeccable, and the unanimity in the fast movements has to be heard to believe. One may ask: Is this really what the composer wanted? I have no insight on this matter. What I do know is that Emerson Quartet follows faithfully Bartók score to the smallest details, at least for Quartet No.4 which I studied.(***) If you don't like this "modern approach", then perhaps one of Juilliard's, or Vegh's, recordings would be more appealing. However, I'd say that this set is a must-listen for its sheer technical brilliance and utmost intellectual integrity.
Note: This recording is the winner of Gramophone's Record of the Year in 1989.
(*) In fact, as far as the technical execution is concerned, not even the Emersons have surpassed themselves since, IMHO. But of course, I do not claim to have heard all string quartet performances live or recorded! The statement is strictly about my own limited experience.
(**) This includes Bartók's "novel ways" of producing tones, such as the frequent "slide-up-and-down" (glissando), tremolos, pizzacato glissandi, col legno (buttuto). One can also hear "hurdy-gurday" like sound at the end of the fifth quartet (con indifferenza).
(***) If you do follow the music with a score in hand, you will understand that there is nothing "flashy" about Emerson's performance. They fully understand Bartók's motivic development, "expanding and contracting wedge", and "inversional relations". The music therefore flows organically instead of relying on strong rhythm to propel forward.