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Bartók: The String Quartets

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  • Composer: Bela Bartok
  • Audio CD (2 Nov. 1988)
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Label: Universal Classics
  • ASIN: B000001G9O
  • Other Editions: Audio CD  |  MP3 Download
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 152,793 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
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Product Description

EMERSON STRING QUARTET

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Format: Audio CD
Bela Bartok - 6 string quartets (composed: 1908-1938)
resolutely dark,angry intense yet indispensable + iconic 20th C angular/modern classical music: this is not Mozart....

Well i can't agree with the other reviewer posted elsewhere on amazon uk for the same release concerning the Emersons playing and interpretation of Bartok's essential quartet cycle. yes - they can play aggressively and perhaps without as much tonal colour or subtley as other quartets (the Keller Qrt or Takacs for instance) BUT Bartok's quartets are perhaps his most astringent/unmelodic and demanding works, + it was the Emerson's live versions i heard on bbc radio3 some 15 years ago (that as a then - mainly rock/metal+ dance fan) actually converted me to Bartok in the first place! It was the Emerson's tremendous projection and dark energy combined with their famous technique in these fearlessly demanding yet rewarding works that impressed me then + still does now.

I also enjoy the little reviewed versions by the Endellion Qrt also (on Virgin)or the Keller Qrt (on erato/apex) for a less forceful, more reflective take on this great cycle. admittedly - i need to compare the Emersons against the Takacs Qrt also now - as they're release on decca now occupies top spot in many guides.

i would suggest starting with Qrts 4, 3, then 1, then the remaining 2,5 +6. Anyway - the Emersons (perhaps like Mravinsky with Shostakovich's symphonies or Gould's Bach for instance) might be an acquired taste for more "refined" ears but this 2 cd set suits me just fine. Gramophone and the Penguin guide also thought so in '98....
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x9bc51378) out of 5 stars 38 reviews
69 of 73 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9bc83c3c) out of 5 stars A startling range of sound and beauty from the composer and realized by a brilliant quartet 5 Nov. 2005
By Craig Matteson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Bela Bartók was a very great composer and virtuoso pianist who wrote some of the most important music of the twentieth century. Born in Transylvania, Hungary in 1881, he received his first music lessons from his mother who was herself a gifted pianist. He began performing in public at an early age, and received a solid musical education. At eighteen he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he continued his studies in piano and composition. His early compositional style was modeled on Brahms (a great choice). His interests expanded and he not only began using folk elements of Hungary, but wanted to explore musical elements from his home in Transylvania, as well as Romanian and Slavonic materials.

Bartók became friends with Zoltan Kodály and they toured around the region collecting folk songs that became important compositional resources for both of them. The features of asymmetric rhythms, polytonality, and piercing dissonances in their music are all rooted in these folk traditions. However, Bartók was also influenced by the music of the Impressionists and especially by Debussy. He came to America in 1940 and died from leukemia in 1945. All his life he had financial difficulties and was quite bitter at his inability to support his family. His fame has grown since his death and his music continues to be performed and appreciated. These six quartets are not only important pieces in the composer's catalog of works, but in the entire literature of the string quartet.

While the playing of string instruments in small ensembles dates back hundreds of years, and any four together could be termed a quartet, the term "string quartet" actually means a specific ensemble of two violins, viola, and cello and, usually, a four movement form of fast, slow, menuet (or scherzo), and a fast finale. Yes, there are exceptions to these generalities, but they just prove the rule. The string quartet as we know it was developed and codified by Franz Joseph Haydn in the mid-eighteenth century. He wrote more than sixty of them, and his young friend, the genius Mozart, wrote more than twenty. Beethoven's sixteen string quartets, especially the later ones, became monuments in the form. Since then, many great composers have used this form to write some of their most beautiful, and, often, daring and complex music.

Why this form for that kind of exploration? The string quartet allows for a wonderful combination of brilliant solo playing and a kind of ensemble playing that is not possible in a symphony orchestra. The textures are more transparent and the possibilities for compositional exploration push the limits of the instruments and players to the extreme.

These six quartets were not written as a set. The first two were completed in 1909 and 1917, respectively. The last four were written in 1927, 1928, 1934, and 1939. Bartók had received a commission to write a seventh, but died before the work could be done.

Although the driving rhythms, the ways Bartók has the players use their instruments, the sharp dissonances, and quarter-tones do not shock as they once did, they can still be quite disorienting to a listener who is not aware of what is going on. What a listener should not do is to expect Bartók to turn into Mozart or Schubert at any moment. Just relax and let the music come to you. After several hearings you will begin to develop connections in the music and realize that it is largely tonal music. Bartók may use twelve-tones, but never the technique of Schoenberg. His musical ideas of counterpoint and structure and rooted in the same traditional methods of the great composers, but his harmonic and rhythmic language has some twists in it and the playing style is extended. It is really quite beautiful, poignant, and, at times, amazingly fun.

The Emerson Quartet is a wonderfully talented ensemble. They bring great intelligence and skill to this music and I recommend this recording highly. Some might wish a broader, less exact playing style, but I am not one of them. Bartók meant exactly what he wrote down and it takes a monumental technique to pull off. Extra arm waving and less precise technique do not make for a better performance in my book. One of my teachers wisely insisted that so much of what is called "expression" in music is simply sloppy technique. He also insisted that if you can't play it the same, you can't play it different. He was absolutely right.

Explore, Enjoy, and be Delighted!
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
By Jock - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
If you are new to Bartok or even twentieth century chamber works, then this recording is fine place to start. The Emerson Quartet built their lofty reputation through the status of this recording, and their series of spectacular concerts where they play the quartets, one to six in one night.
These quartets can sound tough and uncompromising to tender ears but once you gently get to know them i.e. while studying or reading, your mind almost unconsciously unlocks the music and you soon are struck by the realisation that this is amongst the most beautiful, moving and exciting music you may ever hear.
These quartets span Bartok's entire career and are quite occupy quite different sound worlds. The first is early, a good acclimatiser but only really a foothill, the second is gentle and humane, troubled and reflective, a deeply emotional work, the third: short, intense, challenging, but life-affirmingly rhythmic with a wild joyous close, then the grand showpiece, the fourth contains some of the most astonishing and exhilarating sounds you will hear some from a quartet. I still am cool towards the fifth and sixth, dunno they just don't click, indeed not everyone will take to shine to all or any of this music. The trick is to not sit sternly into front of the speakers, waiting on revelation, just give the music a chance to come to you.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c3d06e4) out of 5 stars Astounding Brilliance and Virtuousity 4 Jan. 2004
By Humbert Humbert - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The six quartets penned by the original and brilliant Béla Bartók represent the pinnacle of musical, particullarly modern, compostion in music. I will try to list a few of the many reasons these compostions are masterpieces. First of all, Bartók demonstrated the limits of what is and is not tonality. One must admire the amazing truce Bartók seemed to make with the tonal and atonal techniques. Second of all, the imagination and originality shown by the various demands on the performer to create some of the most unusual sounds from the string instruments, such as the "Bartók pizzacato" employed the most in the fourth movement of the fourth quartet, which calls on the performer to pluck a string so hard that it hits the fingerboard, was unprecedented by any composer for any instruments. Finally, and possibly most importantly, these quartets contain the power to inflict any emotion upon ther listener whether it is exhilartion to depression while encompassing the use of the techniques listed above. These quartets can be very violent and furious, but also can contain an original form of serenity.

As for the Emerson String Quartet's rendition of these quartets, I uphold as much admiration one can have for the performer without taking away from the actual composer's credit. The quartet always maintains the correct amount of balence that is a necessity for the four instruments. The Emerson also is able to always hit each percussive and dissonant chord simultainiously with a new level of perfection and percision. The tempi chosen for the various movements is very agreeable and never sounds rushed or dragged. This is a very crisp recording that has no background interference. I also must mention the unity the quartet maintains in the rapid moments of the music, such as the in second movement of the second quartet.

These quartets are recommended for everyone, but might not attract those who just enjoy music to serve in the background rather than to be analyzed.

Enjoy the great rendition of the Emerson perfecting Bartók!!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b994564) out of 5 stars The Emerson Bartok cycle 25 years on 3 Jan. 2013
By jt52 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The 25th anniversary of the Emerson Quartet's famous 1988 cycle of the six Bela Bartok quartets served as a good opportunity for me to re-visit the set in depth and compare it to some other performance made since then. I purchased this set when it was first released and over the years have listened to individual quartets many times, making the Emerson my "reference" for a long time.

When it first appeared, my impression was that the Emerson's had mastered the technical details of Bartok's difficult writing as no ensemble had done before, outdoing earlier competitors like the Juilliard and Tokyo quartets, while maintaining an interpretive approach that was a bit dry and clinical. This technical mastery is part of the trend in today's classical music performance practice, where the ability of individual instrumentalists and ensembles has outstripped those from 50 years ago I think in a comprehensive way. (This is no comment on the artistic or emotional aspect of interpretation, a separate matter.) My view today is a bit different: I view the Emerson's as still very polished in the technical sense - it's hard to detect any flaws in terms of say intonation or ensemble anywhere in the set - but that they are not as dry and expressionless as I once thought.

This life is most vividly heard in what I now think is the set's signature performance, the Emerson's aggressive, incisive version of the 4th quartet, one of the great performances by a string quartet I have had the pleasure of hearing. When compared to some quality alternatives I have in my collection, the sheer passion and energy they bring is awe-inspiring. That energy can manifest itself in the dissonant modernist complexity of the opening allegro or in the more humorous and colorful all-pizzicato fourth movement. Their 4th quartet just by itself makes this set a success.

But that impression of dryness isn't mistaken either. The short 3rd quartet - part of Bartok's most modernist period in the mid-1920s - is given an anemic, detached performance by the Emersons. They seem to be just playing the notes, not living what is intended to be highly emotional - even expressionist - musical style.

Most of the set falls below these two poles in terms of quality. The first two quartets, less interesting than Bartok's writing in other genres from the 1900s and 1910s I think, are given solid performances. I like the way the Emersons handle the long and complex 5th quartet, leaving aside the fact that I've grown to dislike this composition despite its technical assurance. The Emerson's finish with a very successful performance of the 6th quartet, my personal favorite among the six. While I can imagine a more atmospheric approach to this kaleidoscopic music, the Emerson's do well, emphasizing the contrasts in textures and moods, and the humor of the Burlesque movement.

One of the negatives with this set is the average sound engineering by DG. For some reason, DG has "blessed" the Emersons, headline artists for their label, with very average sonics, ranging from the frank awfulness of the Schubert triple-CD set to the overly bright Mozart performances. This Bartok set is actually relatively good within the spectrum of engineering mediocrity DG rolls out for a string quartet that obviously merits better.

But all in all, this remains an outstanding set that contains some stellar work.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9bc88498) out of 5 stars A must have in any classical music library! 6 July 2001
By Andrew Bisset - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Bartok's 6 string quartets are some of the best quartets ever written. Bartok's unique folk-music-like style comes out best in his works for strings. The works have a very rustic and gypsy-like sound, yet Bartok constructed them to perfection. His unique use of tonality is demonstrated best in these quartets in which all instruments jump through 12 tones and still keep a tonal center. Aaron Copland, in his book "What To Listen For In Music", suggests these quartets by the Emerson Quartet as an excellent place to start in exploring the music of Bela Bartok. If one is looking for a good recording to bring them into the appreciation of 20th century and contemporary music, these quartets are the place to start. Furthermore, Emerson does such a FABULOUS job. The quartet actually performed the whole cycle of quartets in a concert. Any group of musicians who can keep an audience entertained with over 2 hours of very complex and enigmatic music deserves recognition. So recognize Emerson and BUY THIS RECORDING!!!
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