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Bela Bartok: The 6 String Quartets - Emerson String Quartet

4.6 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Audio CD, November 14, 1988
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Editorial Reviews

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The six quartets of Bartók have been well represented on record, far better than the six of Schoenberg or the fifteen of Shostakovich. The choice on Compact Disc, however, is an easy one, for the Emerson Quartet not only plays the music better than any other ensemble, but gets all six essays onto two discs. Making roses out of what must seem more like a collection of thistles to most others who attempt to play the set, the Emerson players show the kind of ensemble polish that caused one European critic to complain, "too smooth.... I like my Bartók rougher." But awkwardness and rhythmic uncertainty, which have made many a lesser group sound rough in this music, should not be confused with expressive edge, which the Emersons bring to the music in full measure. Their readings are extraordinarily revealing, high-intensity, not at all for the faint of heart. With the odd-numbered quartets on one disc and the even on the other, each CD is a "microcosmos" of the whole set. The sound quality is excellent throughout. --Ted Libbey
  • Sample this album Artist (Sample)
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Disc 2
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Product Details

  • Performer: Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel, Philip Setzer, Emerson String Quartet
  • Composer: Bela Bartok
  • Audio CD (November 14, 1988)
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • ASIN: B000001G9O
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,121 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 5, 2005
Format: Audio CD
Bela Bartók was a very great composer and virtuoso pianist who wrote some of the most important music of the twentieth century. Born in Transylvania, Hungary in 1881, he received his first music lessons from his mother who was herself a gifted pianist. He began performing in public at an early age, and received a solid musical education. At eighteen he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. There he continued his studies in piano and composition. His early compositional style was modeled on Brahms (a great choice). His interests expanded and he not only began using folk elements of Hungary, but wanted to explore musical elements from his home in Transylvania, as well as Romanian and Slavonic materials.

Bartók became friends with Zoltan Kodály and they toured around the region collecting folk songs that became important compositional resources for both of them. The features of asymmetric rhythms, polytonality, and piercing dissonances in their music are all rooted in these folk traditions. However, Bartók was also influenced by the music of the Impressionists and especially by Debussy. He came to America in 1940 and died from leukemia in 1945. All his life he had financial difficulties and was quite bitter at his inability to support his family. His fame has grown since his death and his music continues to be performed and appreciated. These six quartets are not only important pieces in the composer's catalog of works, but in the entire literature of the string quartet.
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By Jock on November 27, 1999
Format: Audio CD
If you are new to Bartok or even twentieth century chamber works, then this recording is fine place to start. The Emerson Quartet built their lofty reputation through the status of this recording, and their series of spectacular concerts where they play the quartets, one to six in one night.
These quartets can sound tough and uncompromising to tender ears but once you gently get to know them i.e. while studying or reading, your mind almost unconsciously unlocks the music and you soon are struck by the realisation that this is amongst the most beautiful, moving and exciting music you may ever hear.
These quartets span Bartok's entire career and are quite occupy quite different sound worlds. The first is early, a good acclimatiser but only really a foothill, the second is gentle and humane, troubled and reflective, a deeply emotional work, the third: short, intense, challenging, but life-affirmingly rhythmic with a wild joyous close, then the grand showpiece, the fourth contains some of the most astonishing and exhilarating sounds you will hear some from a quartet. I still am cool towards the fifth and sixth, dunno they just don't click, indeed not everyone will take to shine to all or any of this music. The trick is to not sit sternly into front of the speakers, waiting on revelation, just give the music a chance to come to you.
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Format: Audio CD
The six quartets penned by the original and brilliant Béla Bartók represent the pinnacle of musical, particullarly modern, compostion in music. I will try to list a few of the many reasons these compostions are masterpieces. First of all, Bartók demonstrated the limits of what is and is not tonality. One must admire the amazing truce Bartók seemed to make with the tonal and atonal techniques. Second of all, the imagination and originality shown by the various demands on the performer to create some of the most unusual sounds from the string instruments, such as the "Bartók pizzacato" employed the most in the fourth movement of the fourth quartet, which calls on the performer to pluck a string so hard that it hits the fingerboard, was unprecedented by any composer for any instruments. Finally, and possibly most importantly, these quartets contain the power to inflict any emotion upon ther listener whether it is exhilartion to depression while encompassing the use of the techniques listed above. These quartets can be very violent and furious, but also can contain an original form of serenity.

As for the Emerson String Quartet's rendition of these quartets, I uphold as much admiration one can have for the performer without taking away from the actual composer's credit. The quartet always maintains the correct amount of balence that is a necessity for the four instruments. The Emerson also is able to always hit each percussive and dissonant chord simultainiously with a new level of perfection and percision. The tempi chosen for the various movements is very agreeable and never sounds rushed or dragged. This is a very crisp recording that has no background interference.
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Format: Audio CD
The 25th anniversary of the Emerson Quartet's famous 1988 cycle of the six Bela Bartok quartets served as a good opportunity for me to re-visit the set in depth and compare it to some other performance made since then. I purchased this set when it was first released and over the years have listened to individual quartets many times, making the Emerson my "reference" for a long time.

When it first appeared, my impression was that the Emerson's had mastered the technical details of Bartok's difficult writing as no ensemble had done before, outdoing earlier competitors like the Juilliard and Tokyo quartets, while maintaining an interpretive approach that was a bit dry and clinical. This technical mastery is part of the trend in today's classical music performance practice, where the ability of individual instrumentalists and ensembles has outstripped those from 50 years ago I think in a comprehensive way. (This is no comment on the artistic or emotional aspect of interpretation, a separate matter.) My view today is a bit different: I view the Emerson's as still very polished in the technical sense - it's hard to detect any flaws in terms of say intonation or ensemble anywhere in the set - but that they are not as dry and expressionless as I once thought.

This life is most vividly heard in what I now think is the set's signature performance, the Emerson's aggressive, incisive version of the 4th quartet, one of the great performances by a string quartet I have had the pleasure of hearing. When compared to some quality alternatives I have in my collection, the sheer passion and energy they bring is awe-inspiring. That energy can manifest itself in the dissonant modernist complexity of the opening allegro or in the more humorous and colorful all-pizzicato fourth movement.
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