Robert Cowan
February 2014

Kodály’s two string quartets tend to linger under the shadow of the mighty ‘six pack’ that his compatriot Bartók wrote over a period of some 30 years. True, their language is less outspoken than Bartók’s and their expressive range is less adventurous, but they deserve more attention than they’ve so far received. The Second Quartet (1916-18) is the one closest in spirit and style to Kodály’s instrumental masterpiece, his Solo Cello Sonata, Op 8 (1915). And yet its angular, contrapuntally tangled opening anticipates Bartók’s Fourth Quartet by some 10 years. The folk element that both composers held so close to their hearts is most evident in the second and third movements, the former also alluding to Bartók’s haunting ‘night music’ episodes.

I’d say that overall Kodály’s style more approximates his compatriots Dohnányi or even Miklos Rozsa than Bartók, the shimmering closing minutes of the 1909 First Quartet’s Lento assai (from 9'05" into track 2) alluding unmistakably to Dohnányi’s Serenade in C for string trio, which was composed five years earlier. The two shorter works make for attractive makeweights, the 1905 Intermezzo for string trio recalling the Russian school (Borodin in the outer sections, Shostakovich-in-embryo in the Trio), whereas the Gavotte suggests a Delian brand of melancholy. As to rival versions of the quartets, the gutsy Kontra Quartet (BIS) offer fine readings of both quartets but suffer from an excessively resonant recording; the Kodály Quartet (Hungaroton) are relatively underpowered, especially in the first movement of the First Quartet. Which makes this new CD a secure recommendation for both works.