Penderecki String Quartet

Bartók: Complete String Quartets

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Exceptional sets of Béla Bartók's landmark String Quartets (6) are rare, even though most of the world's leading string quartets have applied their skills to record them, some several times. The Penderecki String Quartet has only one to offer, but it is decidedly competitive among the finest recordings, surpassed only by the truly great cycles by the Juilliard, Takács, and Emerson string quartets. One may quibble over the Penderecki's occasionally odd tempo choices and variable dynamics, or feel slightly annoyed at some of the sounds of exertion that distract from the music. But overall, these are passionate, physical readings that have a broad emotional sweep and an acute precision that more than make up for the few incidental problems. There are pitfalls aplenty in these virtuosic works, but this tight ensemble acquits itself admirably on virtually all technical points, except for a few noticeable slowdowns in the toughest passages. More importantly, though, the group gets Bartók's expressions right, from the melancholy, yearning, and vigor of the early quartets to the caustic wit and pensiveness of the later works. Furthermore, in all there is a strong ethnic pulse that is played up to great effect, and the Penderecki almost achieves the intensity that is so remarkable in the Takács set. While this is not the most recommended recording -- the 1963 Columbia recording by the Juilliard String Quartet is still the ne plus ultra of Bartók cycles, with the Takács on London close beside it -- the Penderecki String Quartet has still made a vital contribution to the discography, and listeners in search of a worthwhile rendition should try this one for its many merits.

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