Béla Bartók, born in 1881, is considered by many to be the greatest Hungarian composer as well as one of the most significant musical voices of the 20th century. Self-taught and originally trained as a pianist, he combined elements of his homeland’s traditional folk music with the influences of his contemporaries to produce a highly distinctive, immediately recognisable style.
Bartok’s six string quartets, to which this 2CD compilation is dedicated, represent a milestone in the history of the genre and provide a unique insight into the way the composer’s musical language developed over four decades. It’s a fascinating stylistic journey, beginning with the First Quartet of 1907 – a work very much in the shadow of late Beethoven. Moving onto the Second (1917), written during a period of intense musical isolation, we encounter the influences of Strauss, Debussy and late Schoenberg before being subjected to the full-scale expressionism of the Third and Fourth Quartets (1927 and 1928 respectively). The Fifth, composed six years later, adopts a five-movement arch-like structure and is a strong contrast to the Sixth and final Quartet of 1938: deeply reflective and pessimistic in tone, this was to be Bartok’s last work before fleeing to the US to escape the spectre of fascist Europe.
Together with driving rhythms, sharp dissonances and even quarter tones, this cycle presents a huge challenge musically and technically to even the most accomplished quartets. The Guarneri, however, is on fine form here and delivers a first-rate performance brimming with character. A gem of a recording.