Performances of Bartók’s six quartets have tended to fall into two camps; the hard-edged modernist, exemplified by the Emerson Quartet’s 1989 recording, or the soft-grained folkloric from Eastern Europe, for which the Takács is famed. As the cycle has remained my favourite since my angry youth I have tended to favour the former but inevitably, my radical sensibilities are relaxing as the years go by.
This latest recording falls not in the middle but somewhere on a tangent and could well be the ideal library reference. The Heath Quartet nailed their explorative colours to the mast with their Gramophone Award-winning set of the five Tippett quartets and a bracing northern breeze fills their sails for this latest voyage.
Their cool, limpid sound and crystalline clarity elucidates Bartók’s contrapuntal argument while their modern vibrato-lite style, impeccable intonation and precise chord voicing makes sense of his unconventional harmonic language. Rhythms are taut as a drum but not overdriven, they seem to find the ideal tempi; always well propelled, though time is allowed for bold gestures to register.
The Allegroof No 4, so often hectoring or gabbled, is superbly paced with those strange glissandigiven breathing space and the foot-to-the-pedal surges...