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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Overlooked and Undervalued, 22 Feb 2008
By 
Mr. Mark A. Meldon (Somerset UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
This is an excellent set of Bartok's string quartets and is fabulous value for money. I think I'm right in saying that the set was issued originally in the mid-1990s on Erato, a lable that has pretty much vanished as the "major" record labels become "minor". The set offers stunning performances, as noted by both UK and US professional critics, but rarely appears on "the radar" of record buyers. At the price, you really can't go wrong and I would recommend this CD as a great first choice for those curious about this supposedly "difficult" music.
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60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A strange and desolate beauty, 18 Nov 2009
By 
John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
I first encountered the violinist Andras Keller when I acquired the superb Kurtág - Kafka-Fragmente, which shows the terrific precision and vividness of his playing to optimum advantage. When I then learned that he led a quartet with whom he had recorded the iconically difficulty Bartóks I had the mental tussle of deciding whether my collection needed an alternate copy to my, considered by many as definitive, Takacs version, Bartók: The String Quartets (2 CDs). My first efforts at getting to grips with these works had been with the Emerson set, but after finally admitting defeat I defected to the Takacs', finding them superior in so many ways. Bartók's quartets are not like anyone else's, and not even very much like any of his other music. They tend to be constructed as juxtapositions of heterogeneous blocks of tightly woven harmonic and contrapuntal texture, with only emergent hints of thematic material to unify their structure. As such, it is the handling of the transitions between these blocks that gives huge scope for interpretation by players ambitious enough to attempt them, and that also determines how successful they will be in presenting the works as organic wholes or as crumbling patchworks. Anyway, at less then a third of the price of the Takacs, I plumped to give these a go and they have surpassed all expectations. I'm going to have to do some careful comparisons to decide whether they fully replace my Takacs versions. But I can already say that there is a clarity and vividness to these recordings that have bought these works to life for me in a way that I have not heard before.

The earliest quartet of 1907-09 is the most approachable, still having some tenuous links to the language of Romanticism. The first movement is slow and filled with great nobility but with terrible gravity. The second movement is similarly slow but now punctuated by attempts at sparks of passion that never quite ignite. Only in the third movement, after a brief, hesitant start is there a sudden assertion of frenzied agitation in which we can recognise the East European peasant dance like themes and scales, so characteristic of Bartók, but whose rhythms have been refracted into something dark and twisted.

Quartet No.2 was written in 1915-17 against the turmoil of the First World War. The opening movement is both mysterious and painful, filled with dejected introspection. A flickering flame amidst agitated shadows. One is reminded of the aching beauty of the Debussy string quartet, but now made more sharply chromatic, and thereby made about as sad as music gets. This is set against a second movement which is a fearsome sort of peasant dance that probably involves sabres and whips. The third movement returns us to the Stygian gloom of the first, but only more so. A movement of such dark and bitter ruminations that it seems all light has gone from the world.

Quartet No.3 of 1927 is a brief but highly intense work with no gaps between movements. The first movement is similar to that of No.2, furtive and subdued, but with occasional outbursts of grief and anger. This gives way quite suddenly to another cruel and frenzied dance filled with every conceivable effect that might be drawn from the instruments. It ends with a harsh chromatic stabbing before subsiding to the first part of the third movement, which is one of glacial contemplation. This gradually builds back into a frenzy in which one might swear that bombs can be heard falling, before climaxing with an even more emphatic stabbing.

Quartet No.4 of 1928 is a five movement work the first of which has a spiteful and angular blockiness, with suggestions of devious cunning, like a villainous caricature. This is followed by a quieter, more erratic movement that has a subtly unhinged quality, almost like music to swat flies to. The slow and beautiful central movement is constructed from long and hanging chromatic chords against which solo instruments, mostly cello, ruminate. Strange microtonal harmonic effects add to its otherworldliness. The sadness is relieved by an acrobatic movement of great vigour, and arguably even some skewed form of wit, made entirely out of pizzicato, including the slaps of the infamous Bartók pizzicato. The final movement is another vicious, slicing peasant dance.

No.5 of 1934 is another 5 movement work. The first opens with an almost Beethovenian assertiveness, with taut, muscular patterns that are both earthy and highly abstract. The second movement is one of slow liturgical parody. Bartok was a strict atheist who wrote no religious music but in this we seem to hear stillness and prayer, and then a chromatic disappointment when those prayers go unanswered. The central movement is close as we come to gaiety in the whole cycle, but even this is infected with a sardonic twist. The fourth movement seems like a strange attempt to blend the emotional dimensions of the preceding two movements with a highly ambiguous resultant. The final movement is a return to the strident intensity of the first with, in my opinion, some of the finest writing in the whole series, including the strange and lugubrious `barrel-organ' music.

No.6 of 1939 is a four movement work, each of which begins with the statement of a slowly rambling, melancholy figure, with more or less accompaniment. The first movement follows the solo statement of this figure with intense music that seems to pit the Beethovenian tendency heard in No.5 against the more Debussy-like language of the earlier works. The figure is followed in the second movement by a lopsided march, that must continually overcome obstacles in order to maintain its momentum. It includes a strange interlude involving what sound like highly chromatic balalaikas. The third movement gives us a peasant dance theme that is constantly interrupted by more difficult material that prevents it from ever getting going. The effect is one of frustration. The final movement is a slow, painful one in which the mournful potential of the leading figure is finally worked out in full. It ends on a note of complete emptiness and desolation, almost as if he knew that he would be writing no more quartets in his lifetime.

So, to be fair these works are no bundle of laughs. But they are packed full of deadly passion, devastating intelligence, the occasional turn of savage wit, but above all a strange and desolate beauty.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Benchmark recording, unmissable bargain!, 6 Mar 2010
By 
Master Jacques (London, England, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
I have (or have had) at least ten complete sets of the Bartok quartets on LP and CD in my possession down the years, and have no hesitation in saying that this Keller Quartet set is the one I would recommend first, especially to anyone new to the work. Whilst I would not want to be without the insights of the Tokyo, Vegh and various Juillard versions (the Takacs never excited me, I'm afraid) I find that the Kellers engage, move and stimulate me throughout the cycle with remarkable consistency.

Why? Well, I think it's partly to do with the authentic sprung quality this Budapest group give to Bartok's rhythms - nothing mechanical here - and partly to do with the first violinist (András Keller's) unfailingly precise intonation and beauty of sound. There is no ostentatious showiness about these performances: just wonderfully vibrant music making, clearly caught by the Erato microphones and now issued at an unmissable price. Don't hesitate!
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can't I have more than 5 stars?, 30 Nov 2008
By 
Liam Mccleary "anthropomorphic" (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
In my view the most consistantly excellent set of Bartok's quartet recordings and my personal favouite. It did have a very short life on Erato before that label was swallowed by Warner. All credit to Warner for reissuing at this great price, but it is true that Erato had no time to promote and so an accident of timing has prevented these recordings becoming classics, as they deserve. You will not find no.s 3,4 or 6 done better by anyone, anywhere in the catalogue. Buy this now while you still can!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars pin-sharp and faultless, 28 Nov 2012
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
For one whose `default' listening revolves mainly around modern jazz and `world' music, it required an effort of will to come to terms with Bartok's quartets. Listening attentively, however, one begins to realise that, distilled within these 150 minutes, is the autobiography of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in any medium. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) came from a uniquely diverse cultural background which included Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian and German influences. A child prodigy, he could distinguish different dance rhythms and play over forty pieces on the piano before the age of four.

In this idiosyncratic music all of these ingredients are combined, together with vivid reflections on the momentous events of the first 40 years of the 20th century. In doing this Bartok extended the sound-range of the classic string quartet in a way that no other composer has succeeded in doing. Ranging from the elegiac to the ribald, from serenely pastoral to screechingly parodic, this music never ceases to surprise. In its astringency and intelligence it is a perfect antidote to the `Classic FM' schmalz that nowadays assails us whether in restaurant or dental surgery.

To these ears, and without making comparisons, the playing of the Keller Quartet is pin-sharp and faultless; their dynamic range from pianissimo to the jagged fortissimo chords - for example in the allegro of the 4th quartet - never ceases to amaze. In the final quartet composed in 1939 (and the dates of all 6 are significant), a `spooky' high-register tremolo mutates via swooping glissandi into banjo-like pizzicato - to ruminative `night music', and back to an unsettling tremolo. The constant transitions and transformations of time and mode are brilliantly handled by the four players.

Perhaps the production of this budget CD verges on the minimal. Some imaginative graphic design, a little more information and a photo or two would have better complemented the excellence of the performance. Ultimately, however, it's the music that counts, and that is superb. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Glad I picked this set, 5 April 2011
By 
maximus (manchester, uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
In terms of which set to choose, it was a choice between the Takacs or (this) Keller quartet recording of the complete string quartets on CD. In the end it came down to price, and as there is musically only marginal differences in terms of which you might pick as the best (which is only very subjective anyway) I went for the Keller. The Penguin CD guide, Gramophone etc all pick the Takacs as "the best" but I am more than happy I chose the budget priced Keller set. The sound is crips, full textures, very neutral background (not too much bloom for example) from the recording location, not too much echo, and enough brightness without the violins sounding shrill. The cello and viola balance is excellent, especially since Bartok treats them as importantly as the violins.

The musical interpretation can't be faulted in my view, there is a brilliance and enthusiasm which is infectious, especially in quartets 1, 5 and 6. They are my favourites in this set. The tempi seem completely appropriate and every note and every effect is heard with clarity. Given the rapid speed of some of the movements, this is some amazing feat.

If you haven't heard these works before, do listen to them in increasing number order. The chronology does give you a real sense of Bartok's own sound world developing throughout his compositional life.

Enthusiastically recommended
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a very good performance, 3 April 2011
By 
Mr. P. Noakes - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
I'm not a musician, so if you are one, please bear that in mind: I cannot give musical analysis. That said, I can only compare this performance with the performance that outstrips everything I have heard. That is the the version by the Tokyo String Quartet. That performance gets hold of and owns the music. These quartets are not only difficult to perform, they are also somewhat difficult for a layman to appreciate. But I find that a great composer's work always has the quality that pulls the ignorant listener in. For an example other than Bartok, Alfred Schnittke work mesmerises at first hearing, even if you don't know where it's going and have little idea where it's been at the conclusion. Like Schnittke, Bartok is completely rewarding. What I find deeply satisfying is the attack and dynamics of the Tokyo Quartet's delivery, it's unending brilliance. And where the music is, shall we say, tender, it is tender with absolute conviction. There is no mental softening in the players at such times: they are strict to what these moments demand - I think because the ideas of how the music should be played are embedded in each player, and that they have got it right, and they know it. Their performance is unending delight, and, for such as myself, constantly illuminating. The Keller Quartet does not match this performance. Neither does that of the Emerson Quartet. Just my opinion, of course. A couple of examples: in the first quartet there's a sequence where the cello is to be played very loudly, and I feel the Keller overdo this somewhat, so that it interferes with the music's progression, it seems to me; and in one of the middle quartets, the 4th or the 5th, there comes a moment when the brilliance of the music gives way to something (it has always seemed to me) that might be played by street musicians: this idea of Bartok's, whatever he means by it, is rigorously held by the Tokyo, whereas the Keller perhaps allow the idea to drift too far towards the somewhat unsophisticated world it is perhaps intended to suggest. But the Keller's performance is very good and I like it very much, plus it has the attraction of a low price. The performance by the Emerson String Quartet is also excellent, and I would recommend both to anyone; but my top recommendation would be that of the Tokyo String Quartet. I hope this is some help.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good price for Bartok, 10 Jun 2014
By 
TheViolaInMyLife (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
A great value Bartok Quartet cycle.

In terms of musicianship I wouldn't put this in the same league as the Tokyo, Hungarian or Vegh Quartet interpretations of these works.

But for anyone new to these demanding works, it's a fairly good starting point.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Equal to Takacs, 29 Dec 2013
By 
Lance Edwards (derbyshire UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
I had to hear these recordings - at a low price - and ended up preferring them to the Takacs set. Even if you think the latter superior the price difference should swing it, I think.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great set, 7 July 2013
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This review is from: Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex (Audio CD)
Good recording. Good performances. Good price. I have the Takac's also, which seems to be the standard for these pieces, but I can't say I don't find this as enjoyable. Get it, even if you already have another set. At the price it is too good not to.

Mike P
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Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete]  -  Apex
Bartok : String Quartets Nos 1 - 6 [Complete] - Apex by Keller Quartet (Audio CD - 2006)
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