Bartok has been called many things, but one thing I wish he would be called more often is a mystic of music. In my over-educated opinion, that is what he was, and that dominated him as a composer, a pianist, an ethnomusicologist and a pedagogue. The problem is that many performers come to this music very naive or, worse, dismissive of this quality of Bartok's genius, and focus too heavily on technical apsects. The result is obvious: a failure to give a proper and authentic voice to the music.
I am sympathetic to the dilemma of any performer tackling these quartets - these are very demanding on a technical level alone. But this does not mean their beauty resides purely in that facet, nor does it excuse any performer for rendering these as a technical or academic exercise. Suffice to say, some performers just don't "get it," and thus ought not attempt these works, if they are not able to met the technical challenge they present and then transcend it in spirit to articulate their fuller beauty.
As a musician who's studied Bartok academically, I am very aware on an intellectual level of how these works relate to Bartok's studies in folk music, and I can easily pick out and analyze his inversions and sequences of folk motifs that populate these works. However, all too often this is something not easily *heard* by the average listener - a tragic irony, seeing much of Bartok's work is so rooted in folk music, which is possibly the most accessible of music idioms. Sadly, this is a mystic's lot: they experience something that is univerally accessible, yet in the process of articulating that experience, those first recieving the message miss the point, get destracted by superficial details, and obscure the beauty and truth of the mystic's message for everyone else. Luckily, music can speak for itself - if the performer doesn't get in the way. So if the performer understands, either consciously or intuitively, that there is a *heart* to these works beyond what he sees written so precisely and techinically on the page (i.e. "gets it"), and strives to articulate this, then that engimatic mysicism of Bartok is unlocked and becomes readily accessible to anyone willing to peer into it.
Fortunately and thankfully, the Takacs Quartet "get it." This is very likely the finest performance of these quartets ever recorded. Without repeating too much of what other reviewers have already said, there is a very genuine spirit and superior command to the Takacs Quartet's performance that makes the very challenging and highly technical quality of these quartets transparent so to reveal, rather than obscure, Bartok's vision. They open up Bartok's quartets in a rare way that allow the listener to "live" inside them, and glaze readily upon their beauty, possibly very closely to how Bartok originally envisioned it. I listened to this recording immediately after listening the 1960's recording by the Novak Quartet, and the difference was astounding. It only vindicated my long standing opinion that Bartok was indeed a mystic of music, and that his unique and very challenging compositions offer much, much more (and for a wider audience) than one might assume from a less inspired performance.
Absolutey, unequivocally recommended.