The string quartet often affords us deep insights into the world of its composer and those of Bela Bartok (1881-1945) are no exception.
The first, dating from 1908, shows a composer still tilling the soil of Hungarian folk music; the sixth and last, written in 1939, ushers in the mellow scores of Bartok's last years, including the popular Concerto for Orchestra.
The Heath Quartet, due to visit us next June through Chamber Music New Zealand, carried off a 2016 Gramophone Award for its live recording of the complete quartets of Michael Tippett. Its new Bartok cycle also originated in a very successful live Wigmore Hall concert last May, brilliantly recaptured on this Harmonia Mundi recording.
These four English musicians cheerfully address this music. They see the six quartets as journeying from tenderness and youthful optimism to desolation and bitter satire, even if their exquisite playing invests the final quartet with an unexpected warmth and radiance.
When they explain Bartok's more difficult quartets, they want us to be aware of his sense of humour, both high and low. Expect buzzing scherzos and off-kilter finales, they tell us, and at one point, the music is likened to an ice-cream van with wonky mechanics.
All of which is a marvellous gateway to what can be a difficult listen, supported by the vitality and unswerving commitment of these performances, in a top-notch recording.
What: Bela Bartok: Complete String Quartets (Harmonia Mundi, through Ode Records)