The Fifth Quartet (1934) came six years after the Fourth. It was written in a month (6 August – 6 September), and followed the revivifying effect the composition of the 44 Duos for two violins had had upon his art in thematic as opposed to intervallic transformation and – an inherent feature of the quartet as a medium, not often used by Bartók before – the juxtaposition of slow and fast music. While the Fourth Quartet is in an almost hidden C major, the B flat tonality of the Fifth is more apparent. The hectic cross-rhythms which ended No 4 stretched syncopation to the limit but remained throughout in 2/4, yet in the Fifth Quartet’s opening movement the pulse is not fixed – the ‘syncopation’ of the first idea cannot be heard against an underlying pulse, for there is none. When this theme is used as the basis for a fugato in the finale, an example of Bartók’s cross-thematicism, we then experience the syncopation at high speed. Taking external features from No 4, the Fifth Quartet is also in five movements, but the slow movements surround a central, folk-inspired Scherzo. The textural aspects of the slow movements faintly echo the corresponding ones in the Fourth, and are also found in the Trio of the Scherzo.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1996