(Azica Records)
Bartók by Heart
Bartók: Six String Quartets

Chiara String Quartet Azica

Béla Bartók
String Quartets 2, 4 and 6

Jerusalem Quartet
Harmonia Mundi

Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are nearly universally regarded as a summit of 20th-century chamber music. Their prestige can spill over to those ensembles that play these challenging works surpassingly well: Particularly admired recorded exemplars include the performances by the Emerson, Takács and Juilliard quartets.

Add to that list the Chiara Quartet — violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota and cellist Gregory Beaver — who, since their professional debut in 2000, have been a quartet-in-residence at Harvard and, now, at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Their Bartók quartets are unusual. For one thing, unlike most chamber musicians who play from the printed score, Chiara performs these pieces from memory — even on the recording. Lifting the music off the page results in viscerally robust performances that combine acute precision of ensemble with tremendous freedom.

Swirling figures in the Third Quartet’s finale become a bee swarm of savage intensity. The quirky, rhythmically limping scherzo of the Fifth Quartet suddenly gives way to an airy trio that seems to survey the receding countryside from a dizzy vantage high in the Transylvanian mountains. Later, the finale’s mad rush is momentarily brought up short by the evocation of an old peasant cranking a hurdy-gurdy by the roadside. Bartók’s famously eerie slow movements assume the vast dimensions of surreal dream states, in which wonder and calm hang like a mobile in symbiotic balance.

These performances demonstrate that younger musicians, fortunately removed from the 20th century’s worst turbulence and carnage, can nevertheless fully appreciate the immediacy of Bartók’s profoundly humane message, the philosophy he characterized as “the brotherhood of peoples.” On this recording, the Chiara Quartet transmits this message vividly, with rare sympathy and understanding.

Patrick Rucker

Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are a cross-section of his musical development. Over 30 years, 1909 to 1939, the Hungarian composer can be heard working his way through the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century. A late Romantic in the mold of Liszt and Wagner, Bartók became a modernist through his study both of pre-tonal folk music from Hungary and other countries, and of post-tonal incorporation of dissonance.

The gold standard for the Bartók quartets up to this point, live and in two versions on disc, has been the Takács Quartet, which gave an exemplary performance of the entire cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2014. The Jerusalem Quartet excels in 20th-century repertoire, including its fine partial traversal of the Shostakovich quartets. To judge from the first disc of its new recorded Bartók set, with the even-numbered quartets, the group’s account will not displace the Takács but promises to be in its league.

The second quartet receives the most convincing rendition, especially the dizzying fluidity in the dancing rhythms of Arabian folk dance in the second movement. One of the first movement’s principal motifs, outlining a minor third in stepwise motion, receives just the right caressing attention from all four players.

(Harmonia Mundi)

The success of the fourth quartet rests on the gently creeping night music of the slow movement, the centerpiece of five movements written in palindromic form (a Bartók signature). The Jerusalem Quartet does not captivate with an eclectic variety of sound like the Takács, and the conclusion of the fifth movement feels too polite to be bloodthirsty. On the other hand, the quartet creates a fun interplay of Stravinsky-esque metric shifts and off-beat accents in the first movement. The inner movements are the most delightful — a restless, questing Prestissimo in the second movement, with mutes on, and an astounding variety of plucked sounds in the fourth movement.

No. 6 is a piece steeped in sadness, composed just before Bartók was compelled to flee Europe for an unhappy few final years in New York. Laments (marked Mesto) open each movement and become the central subject of the finale. The solos that permeate the work are all polished, perhaps too polished. One misses the quirky individualism of the Takács Quartet’s approach.

Charles T. Downey