The Tokyo String Quartet
A century after his birth in a rural part of what was then Hungary (now it’s Romania), and 36 years after his death in New York of leukemia, Bartók has joined the line of essential B’s stretching back through Brahms to Beethoven and Bach. As British composer Matyas Seiber noted, Bartók’s quartets “for generations to come will be looked upon as the most outstanding and significant works of our time.” From just the four string instruments, Bartók wrung remarkable sounds: huge, dive-bombing glissandi; eerie shimmerings played near the bridge; percussive thwacks of the bow; and slaps of violently plucked strings striking the fingerboard. The technical hurdles are no longer formidable for today’s world-class players, least of all the dashing young men (aged 33 to 37) of the Tokyo. The subtler challenge, however, is to bring Bartók’s singing musical soul out of his thicket of audacious ideas, dissonances and rhythms. In this, the Tokyo falls short, seizing the brain, but not quite the heart. For that, try the Juilliard String Quartet’s 1972 box set.