The Jerusalem Quartet’s recording of three of Béla Bartók’s iconic string quartets is just the latest in a long line of fantastic releases they have made for harmonia mundi. Not only does their selection of Bartók’s 2nd, 4th, and 6th quartets provide a balanced and enjoyable program, it also provides an overview of one of the most impressive oeuvres of string quartet writing ever assembled, allowing the listener to experience numerous changes in the composer’s influences and priorities over a period of decades, which otherwise might escape them. Following and doing justice to these stylistic changes while simultaneously presenting a coherent and enjoyable program serves as both the great potential and the great challenge of this album.
Bartók’s music indeed came a long way very quickly. The earliest work present on this album, String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, was premiered in 1918 while the composer was still deeply under the anxiety of influence of two of the greatest composers of his preceding generations: Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Like those of his predecessors, the work is subtly subversive, existing under a thin veneer of Romanticism but hinting at something not quite so picturesque. Many of Bartók’s trademark moods are present: from lush palettes of color to demonic folk dances. The unpretentious atmosphere is heavily endearing to the listener, although these lighthearted moments are gradually replaced with something more sinister over the course of the album.
Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in C major, written 11 years later, introduces a host of new compositional and performance techniques, and the five-movement format allows for each work to feel like a miniature focused on preserving a particular mood. New colors abound, whether generated from harmonics, sul ponticello, or tutti glissandi, and we are treated with one of the first examples of the Bartók pizz, which appears extensively in the requisite pizzicato movement. The Jerusalem Quartet relish in these moments and are particularly adept at breathing fresh life into the syncopated and rhythmically propulsive sections for which Bartók is known. However, they are at times less adept at imbuing dynamic depth and expressiveness into the moments of stunning harmonic experimentation, which can at times appear flat and listless when compared with the more exuberant sections.
The crown jewel of Bartók’s quartets is the emotional String Quartet No. 6 in D major, composed on the turbulent eve of World War II and while his mother was in increasingly poor health. The outlook is certainly the most stoic of Bartók’s quartets, and marks a relatively abrupt break from his previous style. The sometimes-simultaneous juxtaposition of carnival-reminiscent passages with intensely atonal and ferociously attacked lines and the clear real-life and political ramifications all heavily evoke Bartók’s younger contemporary, Dmitri Shostakovich, and the final seconds, which end with a whimper rather than a bang, may very well have provided the inspiration for the final passage of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor. Like Bartók himself, the Jerusalem Quartet appears to truly come unto their own in this work, relishing in and playing up the obvious emotional aspects to great effect.
In showing us a bird’s eye view of the progression of Bartók’s string writing, the Jerusalem Quartet also gives us a fascinating, if unintended, insight into their own stylistic preferences as an ensemble. While they play with remarkable precision and responsiveness, the one thing that is missing is the very extreme ranges of both dynamics and intensity, leading to a sort of emotional compression. This is also reflected in the sound itself, which has a uniform quality that might be well suited to listening in noisy environments, but slightly detracts from full enjoyment of the performance. Otherwise, a thoroughly enjoyable album and a fantastic overview of one of the 20th century’s great composers by one of the 21st century’s great quartets.