Bartók’s Six String Quartets – Belcea Quartet

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Bartók
The Six String Quartets

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea-Fisher & Laura Samuel (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)]

Recorded 1-5 April & 28 July-2 August 2007 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: May 2008
CD No: EMI 3 94400 2
(2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 36 minutes

With Bartók’s string quartets such a cornerstone of 20th-century repertoire, it is of little surprise to note their illustrious recorded history.

In the context of recordings by ensembles as varied as the Hungarian, Tokyo, Végh, Emerson and Takács quartets – to mention but a few leaders – a new cycle needs to be extremely well prepared, and possibly have something extra to add to this wonderful music.

The Belcea Quartet rises to the challenge, with interpretations that are scrupulously rehearsed and sensitively weighted. The wide dynamic-range the musicians use is completely in league with the composer’s wishes, and it is recommended that a quiet room be found to fully appreciate it.

Such extremes of dynamic are found in the scherzo of the Second Quartet, and the headlong rush into its coda. Begun at a feather-light pianissimo, its tense figuration resembles that of dancing insects until the volume suddenly increases and the players hurl out their final unison. The judgement of tempo here is ideal, ensemble crisp and clear.

By isolating a specific example it is possible to see how the Belcea Quartet has spent a lot of time with this music, taking into account the importance of structure – arch-shaped in the case of the Fourth and Fifth Quartets – and also bringing into play the use of folk-material.

Crucial, too, is the way in which portamento, pizzicato, sul ponticello-bowing and double stopping are employed. While a clean sound is achieved, there is also something of the earthy, grass-roots timbre of folk-music that Bartók would surely have appreciated. This becomes evident in the rustic Bulgarian dance in the finale of the Fifth Quartet. A further point to note is the players’ careful selection (and occasional removal) of vibrato as an expressive device, as in the first unison climax of the First Quartet or the passionate outburst a minute into the Sixth, the most convincing performance here. Where it is needed the Belcea players employ it carefully, with Antoine Lederlin’s impassioned cello solo in the second movement of the Sixth a much more aggressive instance.

Interestingly, in comparison with the more aggressive but still vital Emerson interpretations on Deutsche Grammophon, the Belcea Quartet takes longer over each movement, save for the bleak finale of the Second Quartet. At no point do the Belcea musicians’ tempo-choices sound laboured, however – there is still plenty of drive and rhythmic vitality to the dance movements, captured in the huge sweep forward in the finale of the Fifth Quartet.

EMI’s close but faithful recording catches all the asides Bartók so carefully works into his music – soft pizzicato, bowing near to the instruments’ bridges, and sudden jabbed fortissimos from the end of the bow. And while the individual players all have moments to shine – Lederlin’s forceful flourish in the Fourth Quartet’s central movement, the fulsome viola of Krzysztof Chorzelski coming to the fore in the First Quartet – this is very much an ensemble effort.

To sum up, these are extremely convincing performances of Bartók’s six quartets that reveal their folk-music influences, their structural innovations as well as their wit, power and, in the Sixth Quartet at least, despair. Played with raw emotion by the Belcea Quartet, this recording of Bartók’s string quartets fully deserves a place alongside those mentioned above in any collection.

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