BARTÓK: String Quartets 1, 3, & 5.
Euclid Quartet.
ARTEK AR-0060-00 TT: 77:24.

Very good. Many consider Bartók's cycle of string quartets the finest of the Twentieth Century, and they haven't forgotten Schoenberg, Bloch, Holmboe, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Weinberg, or Carter. I always feel uncomfortable when handicapping leaves the race track for the Pantheon of aesthetics. Does it really matter whether Superman can beat up Captain Marvel? Moreover, after a certain point I don't usually listen in terms of better or worse but instead become more interested in the individual profile of a score. The Obvious Greatness, once acknowledged, of the Bartók quartets turns out the least interesting thing one can say about them.

Bartók wrote string quartets throughout his career, including three before 1900, none officially acknowledged and two actually lost. Six quartets make up the official canon, the first appearing in 1908 and the sixth in 1939, and each seems to distill to its essence the composer's other music at the time.

For example, like his first violin concerto and Two Portraits, the String Quartet No. 1 owes its origin to Bartók's infatuation with Stefi Geyer, a violinist. Musically, it combines many influences -- late Romanticism, including a lingering trace of Max Reger, with a new, sparer style. The first movement transforms one of the "Stefi" themes from Two Portraits (the jagged one). The context could hardly differ more. Bartók takes a "grotesque" idea and puts it into a long-breathing, highly contrapuntal slow movement -- Bartók's version of a Liebestod, in this case a song about the death of a love rather than of the beloved. However, the second and third movements dust off the gloom. Bartók's friend Zoltán Kodály characterized these two movements as "a return to life," and the third movement in particular show Bartók's newer, more Modern folksong style beginning to emerge. Occasionally, snippets of a Hungarian pop tune "Just a Fair Girl" pop up.

The Twenties found Bartók working in an aggressive Modern style. He fooled around with twelve-tone ideas and achieved his most concentrated and compressed music. In its sonority, the Third String Quartet (1927) is touched by Berg's Lyric Suite, also for string quartet, which Bartók (and, incidentally, George Gershwin as well) admired. Bartók asks for an army of bowing, tapping, sliding, and plucking effects from the players. Structurally, it may be the most unusual of all his string quartets. In four movements, at one level it breaks into two (first+second; third+fourth), but the third movement, titled "Ricapitulazione della prima parte" (recap of the first part), obviously refers to the first movement, while the fourth recalls the second. The "Ricapitulazione" title misleads, however, since not one theme of the first movement reappears. Instead, Bartók works with both characteristic gestures from the earlier movement and general mood. The finale works with both mood and actual themes of the second movement. Furthermore, the piece holds together so tightly and has no breaks between its parts that it feels like a single long movement. The odd-numbered movements brood, while the even-numbered explode from the built-up tension. Bartók uses this same rhetorical strategy in the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.

The Fifth String Quartet comes from 1934. Bartók has to some extent tamed his avant-garde style and has begun to admit "classicizing," though not strictly speaking classical, forces in his music. The quartet has an "arch form" -- five movements symmetrical around the third, the "keystone" movement. The first movement is structurally amazing. Just some of the stuff going on includes a general sonata form, except in the recapitulation where the three main themes of the exposition appear inverted (upside-down) and in reverse order (essentially, symmetrical around a midpoint). The key progressions essentially follow the whole-tone scale: B-flat, C, D, E, F#, A-flat, and B-flat. Movements two through four are all in ternary form (ABA, symmetry again), while the finale, a sonata (more specifically a sonata-rondo) like the first, we can describe as ABCB'A'. Again, the notion of symmetry pervades the entire score. It strikes me as one of the more difficult movements to bring off in Bartók's entire quartet cycle, it's so musically rich and complex. Players can easily get lost in the minutiae and blur the general shape.

The second movement, uniquely beautiful, exemplifies Bartók's so-called "night music." It begins, really, with the whirring of insects. Each instrument tries to begin something, but manages to speak only in fragments. The first violin hesitantly expands its fragments, while the lower instruments intone a grave chorale. With this support, the violin finally manages to speak in musical sentences, and the other instruments join in. The quartet writing I think ideal -- clear, well-directed conversation among the instruments, shifts occurring not merely at the "right" time, but at the best possible. After a subdued climax, the music breaks apart again into fragments, until a quiet downward slide by the cello extinguishes whatever life there was.

A sardonic scherzo and trio in "Bulgarian" rhythms comprise the keystone movement. The scherzo rhythm careens about in 9/8 meter, irregularly broken up into 4+3+2, while the trio is in 10/8, symmetrically divided into 3+2+2+3. Throughout all the careening, one continually feels "caught on the wrong foot." However, the movement and especially its ending seems more whimsical than uneasy.

The fourth movement returns us to Bartók's world of "night music." Many of the ideas from the second movement recur, although with different bowings and voicings. For example, the trills that opened the second movement become pizzicatos in the fourth. The chorale, this time with ricochet bowing (creating bounces on the strings) instead of a sustained tone, now puts the chorale voices in the upper strings over the melodic fragments and melody in the cello. A canon between the violin and cello ensues, leading to a climax much more intense than that of the second movement, and the nocturne winks out with a weird pizzicato chordal upward slide from the cello.

The fifth movement recalls the festive mood of the first, this time invoking the "Hungarian rondo" and village fiddling in a sophisticated way. Stretto, canon, and fugue pervade the piece, and every single one turns up the excitement. Nevertheless, Bartók wisely allows us to catch our breath so that we can return to the floor for another whirl. Just before the end, however, a hurdy-gurdy seems to wander in, completely out of character and out of key. It's a wrench, as if a surrealistic bus ticket has suddenly materialized from the fifth dimension. It may be my single favorite moment in all of Bartók's quartets. But it's gone in a poof! and the music jerks us back to the final tizzy.

I've known these scores for about fifty years, and I've heard a few recordings, beginning with the Juilliard's pioneering set. A lot of great accounts exist: the Emerson, the Takács (my current favorite), the Tokyo, the Berg, etc., etc. The Euclid Quartet plays with sensitivity and intelligence. Unquestionably, they understand these works, unlike, say, the Belcea Quartet, which I'd do my best to avoid. I do have little quibbles. For example, they don't do a true col legno, called for in some of the quartets. In col legno, the player bows with the wood, rather than with the horsehair, and many hate to do it because it can wreak havoc on a bow. If you play an expensive violin, you likely have an expensive bow. But I think I'm picking nits here. More important, while they shine in the quieter moments -- I've heard no account of the slow movement of the Fifth that betters theirs -- they lack that extra bit of power in the fast movements that would raise them beyond the very, very, very good. Therefore, this should not be your only version of the Bartók quartets, but a "supplemental," once you have heard the scores many different ways.

S.G.S. (January 2015)