The Strad Issue: January 2017
Description: The Chiara pulls off the feat of playing Bartók's quartets from memory
Musicians: Chiara Quartet
Composer: Bartók
Catalogue number: AZICA ACD 71310 (2 CDs)

The title of this disc is literally true: the Chiara Quartet plays from memory. This mnemonical feat must surely play a part in the rubato section of the first movement of the First Quartet, with its rhythmic freedom and unanimity; in the second movement of the Second Quartet, where the final prestissimo passages sound as if played by one instrument; and in the first movement of the Fourth Quartet, where the sheer precision of the dense cross-rhythms and dovetailings is remarkable.

Whatever the advantages of print-free playing may be, these performances are superb, musically and technically. In the First Quartet the opening movement is emotionally probing, the vibrato rich, and the finale is fleet and vivid. In the Allegro movement of the Second, the folk influences are clear in stomping, pesante playing, and the tranquillo passages twist and turn lubriciously. The folk-like tune in the second part of the Third Quartet has a dynamic swagger, and what follows has elemental energy.

The solos in the central movement of the Fourth are powerfully expressive, and the fifth-movement pizzicatos snap splendidly. In the opening Vivace of the Fifth Quartet the meno mosso passages have a delightful flowing simplicity amid the insistent ferocity, and the shaping of the night music, its isolated fragments gathering together to the climax, is beautifully done. The playing in the Sixth Quartet, so fluent and lyrical in the first movement, becomes nightmarish and grotesque before the sustained threnody of the final mesto. The recording of these excellent CDs is reverberant and quite close.

Tim Homfray