As Hermann Conen's excellent liner notes make clear, while there are only five years separating these two inter-war quartets of Bartok and Hartmann, one extends the post-First World War avant-garde of the Twenties while the other anticipates with dread the coming Second.
Thomas Zehetmair, Austrian violinist extraordinaire, and his Zehetmair Quartett, create a unique program by combining the well-known Bartok Fourth with the less well-known Hartmann First, bringing to light in historic context the work of a German composer. They would repeat this format in 2007 by combining Bartok's Fifth quartet and Hindemith's Fourth.
The Zehetmair Quartett compels the listener through this dense modern music, illuminating the stories it has to tell. For this 1999 recording, the quartet was Zehetmair and Ulf Schneider on violin, Ruth Killius (Zehetmair's wife) on viola, and Francoise Groben on cello. The players memorize the score before coming together to record, or to tour, and they bring a sharp, nervous energy and telepathic interplay.
Bartok (1885-1945) was profoundly impressed by hearing Berg's new "Lyric Suite" in Baden-Baden in July 1927, and two months later he had completed his Third Quartet. The Fourth followed within a year. It takes the shape of an arch, and based on Bartok's description of its structure, it is clear that it is nearly a palindrome. All six of Bartok's quartets, but especially his Third, Fourth, and Fifth, are masterpieces of the form, clearly among the best and most important quartets of the early Twentieth centuries (along with Schoenberg and Shostakovich). They have of course been recorded extensively, and rather than compete with such integral cycles as the definitive Takacs Quartet, Zehetmair chooses to bring Bartok to light not only through interpretation but by juxtaposition.
As a young man in Germany's Weimar Republic, Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) "...nonchalantly amalgamated Futurism, Dada, jazz and other things in a series of compositions..." His First Quartet is dedicated to Hermann Scherchen, the influential conductor of Neue Musik, who provided guidance and support for the young Hartmann. Hartmann's signature style is evident here, a somber, tragic view and a moving modernism clearly rooted in both Mahler and Schoenberg that does not abandon tonality for the 12-tone method. This prize-winning quartet is altogether worthy of being heard alongside Schoenberg and Bartok. Hartmann wrote only one more quartet, focusing his energies on symphonies.
The Zehetmair Quartett bring to life the music of another era, music of Central Europe on the hinge between the wars. It can be recommended without qualification to anyone interested in the finest string quartets of the Twentieth Century.