The Heath Quartet BÉLA BARTÓK Complete String Quartets

Bartók’s six string quartets are arguably the most important contribution to the medium after Beethoven, and they plot his evolution as a composer more completely than any other group of his works. Of course, there’s already a generous choice of outstanding cycles available on disc, ranging from recordings from the LP era, such as those by the Fine Arts and Végh quartets, to digital versions by the Takács (itself almost 20 years old) and the Alban Berg. Given such a pedigree, it’s hardly damning the Heath Quartet’s new cycle with faint praise to say that their performances deserve to be considered alongside the best of these existing sets, and although they may not displace any of the current recommendations, they are fine accounts. 
To fit all six quartets on to two CDs, the odd-numbered works occupy one disc, and the even-numbered the other. There are things to admire in all six of the Heath performances, but hearing them in that order emphasises their strengths and occasional weaknesses. The careful balancing of textures and clarity of the part writing are regularly impressive. The unfolding of the counterpoint in the first two quartets, and whirlwind delicacy and transparency of the final section of the Third, are spellbinding. And their treatment of the deeply tragic finale of the Sixth, which never becomes lachrymose, could hardly be bettered. 
But what sometimes seems to be missing is a collective willingness to really take the music by the scruff of its neck and impose an interpretation on it. In the Fourth and Fifth quartets especially the playing becomes too passive and tactful, though the finale of the Fifth generates real momentum. The more expressionist moments of the Second and Third are perhaps a bit underplayed, too. But the totality of the set is undeniably convincing. (Andrew Clements / The Guardian)

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