Bartók: The Six String Quartets

Reviewed on Fri 09 Jun, 2017

Where the Heath Quartet scores is in its flexible approach, and the ease with which tempos relate to each other, especially in the largely romantic First Quartet, a work that in the wrong hands can seem episodic.

I’d call this a radical re-think of the Bartók quartet cycle, as different to the taut, rhythmically propulsive Americans (Juilliards, Emersons, Guarneris, etc) as could be imagined, though don’t get me wrong – those muscular trans-Atlantic takes on this repertoire (the Juilliard and Guarneri especially) rate very high on my list options. Where the Heath Quartet scores is in its flexible approach, and the ease with which tempos relate to each other, especially in the largely romantic First Quartet, a work that in the wrong hands can seem episodic. Inner voices are often coaxed to the fore. The opening movement of the Second Quartet is a fair case in point, and note the intensity of the great unison cry at 8:02. The coda of the second movement really dances, but in the Fourth Quartet’s first movement articulation is a little vague. Ditto the semiquaver shudders of the Fifth Quartet’s Andante, where on occasion individual notes are indistinct. The best performance by far is of the Sixth Quartet, the middle movements especially, where the Heath players latch on to the music’s tragi-comic element, its heady sense of burlesque, which in turn makes the Mesto finale all the more heart-breaking. Elsewhere, had the lens been more sharply focused, various contours might have benefited, but, even as it stands, this set has much to teach us about the greatest quartet cycle beyond Beethoven.
–Rob Cowan