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
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.
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