Alexander String Quartet

Bartók & Kodály: The Complete String Quartets

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The six string quartets of Béla Bartók are widely acknowledged to be central masterpieces of modernism, as well as seminal works of 20th century music generally, but the two string quartets of Zoltán Kodály, Bartók's friend and colleague in Hungarian ethnomusicology, were less significant and are comparatively neglected. Packaging them together with Bartók's set makes sense, if piggy-backing them will bring them greater exposure, but they suffer in proximity to such revered masterpieces, and their weaknesses are made apparent. While nearly contemporary, and owing much to Debussy and Richard Strauss, these composers' youthful quartets are comparable in their passionate melodies and rich harmonies, and the emerging folk song elements are readily found in each. However, Bartók's music grew more adventurous in the string quartets Nos. 3-6, and they proved to be more innovative and influential, practically serving as a "composer's bible" of extended string techniques and an inspiration to the mid-century avant-garde. The Alexander String Quartet turns in assertive performances of all these pieces, and their commitment to the music cannot be denied, though subtlety and nuance are not their strong suits. The dynamics are generally loud, and the ensemble's tone is consistently rough, which works in Bartók's more abrasive, sardonic movements, but is by no means supposed to be the dominant sound, least of all in the first and second. While there are many other Bartók sets that are superior in interpretation and execution, this is still a fine set for study purposes and worth hearing for the seldom played Kodály pieces.

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