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The recital continued with fine performances of the Second and Fourth quartets, displaying a rare level of artistry that showed why these works are seldom performed -- yet also the gold that a first-rate quartet can mine from Bartók's pages. This was so even with the Fourth Quartet's famous Allegro pizzicato, which, plucked throughout, is one of the most remarkable movements for string quartet ever composed -- and, dare it be said, among the most challenging pieces of music anywhere, and so very thrilling when well rendered.

The Orion's first and second violin responsibilities are swapped between Daniel and Todd Philips, brothers who play Stradivarius instruments with great distinction (including in a notable recording of Alfred Schnittke's Moz-Art for Two Violins). At the start of the second evening, younger brother Todd announced a switch in the program that placed Bartók's last two quartets in their order of composition.

That recital began with the Third, the briefest and perhaps most approachable of the set. Its performance was technically flawless: not a note was missed, flubbed or mis-intoned, and its wealth of tension, vigour and drama were all well in evidence. Even so, the enchantment to propel it past a well-executed traversal proved elusive, and its sometimes harsh yet always rich poetic core was never quite fully conjured.

This, precisely, is what the Orion delivered immediately afterwards, with the dynamically impressive five-movement Fifth. The longest of the quartets, along with the First, this is music of great eventfulness, displaying Bartókian ferocity alternating with moments of brash humour; accelerated speeds that contrast with affecting dolce passages; and pacing convoluted by a wealth of central European polyrhythms of the kind one associates with Bartók, the master ethnomusicologist. The Orion's rendering did justice to all of these with an inspired performance by turns solemn and sprightly, earning them a delighted standing ovation from the usually reserved Ottawa audience.

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Copyright © 28 November 2006 Bert Bailey, Ottawa, Canada


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