Bartók by Heart
Following on the success of its 2014 album, Brahms by Heart, the Chiara String Quartet performs the six string quartets of Béla Bartók entirely from memory for this 2016 Azica release. The time wasn't so long ago when Bartók's demanding quartets were among the most difficult chamber pieces, and memorizing them would have seemed imprudent, if not impossible. Yet this youthful ensemble has thoroughly mastered the technical side of the quartets as well as any contemporary ensemble has, and the feat of memorization seems rather more of a positive selling-point than an ill-advised stunt. The Chiara plays with high energy and the freedom to experiment with expression, though their excessive use of portamento at the opening of the "String Quartet No. 1" is unfortunate. For the most part, the Chiara has a strong feeling for Bartók's moods, particularly in the fragile "night music" movements of the "String Quartet No. 4" and the "String Quartet No. 5," though the group is most vigorous and exciting in the Allegro molto capriccioso of the "String Quartet No. 2," an ideal track for sampling Bartók's bracing sonorities and the Chiara's powerful playing.