Beethoven, Nordheim, Bartók: String Quartets

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This release on Norway's adventurous 2L label has an unusual program that sticks to the classical ideal of the string quartet but gives it a strongly modern cast: the String Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85, of Béla Bartók, the most dissonant and difficult of his six quartets, is placed in the chronological middle (although it comes last on the album). The centerpiece is a Norwegian work, the String Quartet of Arne Nordheim, that's influenced by Bartók but seems to lie halfway between the forward edge of his idiom and those of contemporary composers whose uses of conventional instruments are influenced by electronics. Bartók's use of folk rhythms is little in evidence, replaced by edgier textures and sparse, even more concentrated thematic material deployed in three linked sections that wind down to a slow, almost silent conclusion. It's not exactly ear candy, but it fits with the performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74, "Harp," which is given a brisk, almost jittery performance. The audiophile sound from 2L only serves to heighten the intensity, with the microphones in the middle of the group (they're placed slightly differently in each work; a diagram is included in the notes). Put it together with live (some would say too live) church sound, and you have dense, gnarly music that's right in your face. If that's what you're after, here it is. Booklet notes covering both the music and technical considerations are in English and Norwegian.

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