Karl Amadeus Hartmann/Béla Bartók
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Ulf Schneider violin
Ruth Killius viola
Françoise Groben cello
Recorded November 1999, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Violinist Thomas Zehetmair made headlines when he debuted his quartet in what stands to be a reference recording for years to come. The two pieces featured on this disc, one from Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) and the other from Béla Bartók (1881-1945), date from the interwar years, during which time ravages of a bloody past and intimations of an even more tragic future sat side by side. In this respect, the string quartet represents what Hermann Conon in his liner essay describes as a “microsocial sphere in which human beings can learn to coexist harmoniously.” Hartmann was inspired by Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet (1928) when writing his first (1933). The two are linked here in temporal spirit to form a tightly knit program from one of the genre’s most talented configurations.
Hartmann draws into his neglected masterpiece with a mournful viola, which is then lifted ever so slightly by cello. These pass through a cluster of harmonics, as if traversing a portal, into a world of structural contrasts that foreshadow those of Górecki’s works for the medium some six decades later. The Zehetmair Quartet carefully measures every tension and release, as in the avian calls of the second movement, marked con sordino (that is, played with mutes). The nervous energy of the final is funneled into robust violins as they scale beyond Bartók into their own airspace. This is a quartet that demands not only to be heard, but also to be seen.
The Bartók itself plays out like a game of leapfrog, such that each instrument is always engaged with another. Through a spidery forest of glissandi, pizzicati, dynamic contrasts, and tinny bowings, we find ourselves in a likeminded atmospheric haven at its center. The famous Allegretto pizzicato introduces us to a Bartókian staple, given all the room it needs to soar. The frenetic dance at the close works off a tight rhythm section in the lower strings into dense fortissimo thickets of dissonant bliss.
This recording warrants nothing but highest praise on all counts and furthers ECM’s commitment to the very best in string quartet performance and composition. What a journey it continues to be.