A Memorable Debut at the Ilkley Concert Club
We have had many wonderful concerts at the Kings Hall, and this one must be added to the illustrious list. It was ‘as good as it gets’, but your reviewer’s task is to say why this was so. The members of the quartet have total technical and musical command, but this is true of many groups that have visited the King’s Hall. Additionally there is also the most marvellous rapport between the players, something delightfully evident in the Haydn Quartet op. 64 no. 6 with which they began.
Their performance brought out the wonderful conversational quality of the music, as if we were privileged to be eaves-dropping on a discussion between four very intelligent lively-minded friends. Their enjoyment and involvement in the musical argument was conveyed infectiously to the audience.
This sense of identification with the music was powerfully evident in a very different way in the Bartók Sixth Quartet that followed. From its opening viola solo the playing brought out the mental turmoil that the composer was experiencing when he composed it in 1939. The two central movements are full of bitterness; this is often uncomfortable music and the playing did not shy away from projecting its sour nihilism. Yet there are moments of real feeling and the playing responded fully to these more nostalgic episodes. The sad finale was given a very eloquent reading and the prolonged silence before the heartfelt applause began showed how moved the audience had been.
This was a very demanding programme for the players who chose to follow the emotionally draining Bartók with Beethoven’s greatest quartet, the A minor op.132. This forty-five minute work is a real Everest in the quartet repertoire and asks a lot of its performers; they met its many challenges with total assurance and commitment. Judgement of any performance of this masterpiece must depend on how the miraculous slow movement is played. Here it was faultless, courageously slow, technically superb with marvellous blend and a deeply expressive approach. Wonderful.
One of the highlights of the Naxos catalogue is the complete set of Haydn String Quartets played by the Kodály Quartet. Their sympathetic performances are particularly suitable for repeated listening, and the recording quality is good. Quartets Op.64, Nos.4-6 are on Naxos 8.550674 (budget-mid price). An excellent alternative, of all 6 Op.64 Quartets, on period instruments, is provided by the Festetics Quartet, another Hungarian group, on Arcana A417 (2 discs at mid price).
Most recordings of the Bartók Quartet have good performances, and it is almost a question of choosing your favourite group. I have always liked the Hungarian Quartet, and their recording of the complete set is on DGG 457 740-2 (2 discs at mid price). The recording, although published in 1962, still sounds very fine indeed. Another splendid performance, in very good sound, is given by the Keller Quartet on Apex 254626862 (2 discs at super-budget price).
A highly recommendable recording of this work, coupled with the last Quartet, Op.135, was issued in 2013 by the Brentano Quartet of New York, at full price, on the Aeon label, AECD 1223. The Italian Quartet recorded all the Beethoven Quartets in the LP era to great acclaim, and their recording of the Op.131 and 132 works still sounds very fine on Decca 454 712-2 (2 discs at budget price).