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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A strange and desolate beauty, 18 Nov 2009
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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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Comments

Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Oct 2010 12:13:41 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 6 Apr 2011 13:49:38 BDT]

Posted on 1 Dec 2010 19:50:24 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Mar 2012 23:07:06 GMT
Basilides says:
An excellent and highly polished review, yes. But I'm glad to say it suggests nothing that a sensible person would want to listen, to except out of curiosity, unless he's already been persuaded by the influential voices that tell him this is 'good for him' because it's 'great music', and 'difficult music' by a 'great composer' whose quartets must be listened to, admired and liked as an article of faith.
[In response to the previous post now deleted] It's not the fault of the reviewer that the music, as he describes it, doesn't sound more attractive, it's the nature of the music itself. The point I am making is that since the reviewer describes the music in such negative terms it is not clear why he should want to listen to it or why others should either.
Having said that, I can however recommend the first two movements of the 1st quartet and the first movement of the 2nd. After that it's all pretty grotesque, barbaric or cruel, when it's not being extremely miserable and desolate, as in the usual type of 'night music' that Bartok writes. It's the folk music material filtered through the Rite Of Spring that's to blame for the former qualities (i.e. cruel, 'primiitive', barbaric, grotesque).
I'm less concerned with blaming Bartok for writing music that is irredeemably miserable and desolate than I am with raising the question of why people should want to listen to it and think so highly of it.

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Apr 2011 23:03:14 BDT
We should be grateful that we have the absolute objectivity of Basiledes to guide us. The rest of us can only make do with our meagre opinions.

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Apr 2011 23:58:10 BDT
Indeed, such concrete objectivity must be a difficult cross to bear :-)

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Jan 2012 14:06:22 GMT
Leaving Basiledes comments to one side, I'm anxious to explore the world of Bartoks string quartets but not sure which set to purchase. I guess they are all pretty good, but any advice would be appreciated.

Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Jan 2012 16:52:47 GMT
I have owned three sets in all; the Emerson's which, to my mind, failed to get at the essence of the works, The Takacs, which indeed superb, very Hungarian and exciting, but the Keller set are revelatory. So, if I had to recommend one set, for me it would be the Keller's.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Jan 2012 17:37:23 GMT
Thanks for that! I appreciate your prompt response. Will take the plunge with the Keller.

Posted on 19 Feb 2012 17:48:04 GMT
W. Chrispin says:
Brilliant review of the Bartok quartets (with which I have yet to become familiar) but I will now purchase the set John Ferngrove recommends and use his review as a guide through these products of a difficult but ultimately rewarding composer.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Mar 2012 19:48:42 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Apr 2012 19:01:12 BDT
Basilides says:
One's opinions should be objective, or at least aspire to be objective That is the point of opinions.
Otherwise you do indeed have only have your 'meagre' responses or reactions, with no basis that others can understand.
Work on your responses and reactions, defining some special criteria as you go along, and you might then have an opinion.

I'm surprised you don't already know this, but then I'm always surprised when people don't know it.

I wonder why you, or Mr Ferngrove who appears to endorse your ironic tone, bother to write reviews?
Don't you think your views are TRUE?
I might not think they are, but you at least should think so.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jul 2012 22:34:42 BDT
JJA Kiefte says:
Eh, come again?
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John Ferngrove
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Location: Hants UK

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