Belcea Quartet Bartók

String Quartet No.4
String Quartet No.5
String Quartet No.6

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

Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: 10 June, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

They are almost universally acknowledged as the 20th-century’s most important pieces of chamber music, joining the string quartets of Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert at the heart of the modern repertoire. Yet, well-loved and oft-performed though they might be, the six Bartók quartets present a challenge to today’s musicians that must at times seem insurmountable.

It is not just the music itself, which, 66 years after the cycle’s completion, still poses considerable difficulty to players brought up on the works of György Ligeti, Elliott Carter and Wolfgang Rihm. No, the challenge lies not just in presenting fresh, coherent and technically accurate accounts of these works, but in matching – or attempting to match – the illustrious efforts of those who already have. Considering the past masters of this repertoire include the likes of the Végh, Hungarian, Juilliard, Berg, Emerson and Takács Quartets, it is no wonder most ensembles spend months and years studying every note, quarter-tone and glissando in private before giving their thoughts a public airing.

The youthful Belcea Quartet, however, seemed precociously undaunted at the gates of this battle-scarred proving-ground when it performed the second concert of the Wigmore Hall cycle that the musicians have been touring since February. First mooted at the Perth International Arts Festival, this marked the cycle’s first outing in London, on the quartet’s home turf of the Wigmore Hall. London audiences get more than their fair share of these sorts of things, of course; nonetheless, I seriously doubt anyone at this concert went home less than satisfied. These were vibrant, exciting and thoroughly compelling accounts, which utterly belied the group’s relative inexperience in this music.

In Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, arguably the finest, the Belcea presented a surprisingly lyrical account of the first movement, its disjunctive, dissonant discourse yielding an unexpected degree of warmth. So too with the central slow movement, in which the two violins and viola achieved a dreamy sense of stillness in their haunting, long-held chords, calmly detached from cellist Antoine Lederlin’s richly expressive recitative. That movement’s immediate neighbours, a muted Prestissimo on one side and a playful Allegretto pizzicato on the other, offered ample display of the group’s collective and individual technique, but it was the sheer ferocity of the finale that really impressed. Lederlin’s cello bounced on its spike with every fortissimo, while the bow of Corina Belcea-Fisher shed an immodest amount of hair as its owner dug in with galvanising vigour. How she managed such exertions while heavily pregnant is anyone’s guess!

It would have come as no surprise if the quartet had returned from the first interval with a comparatively tepid account of the Fifth Quartet. Yet, if anything, this was an even more thrilling account than the Fourth had been. The first movement blistered with unrestrained dynamism, the four players drawing on a seemingly limitless reserve of energy as they scrubbed away at its repeated-note motifs. The sparseness of the second movement was leavened by a dulcet-toned chorale melody, while the amiable scherzo was a veritable treasure-trove of baubles, full-to-brimming with glittering objects and bizarre folk-melodies. It all culminated in a highly charged finale, as fractious and exciting as the first movement, which nonetheless found room for a spot of high comedy in its cheeky imitations of a music-box.

After another interval came the last in the cycle. Never quite as effective as its predecessors, the Sixth Quartet nonetheless contains some lovely moments, its opening viola solo – here played by Krzystzof Chorzelski as a single unfurling strand of melody – being a prime example. But the work’s inherent flaws – its disparity of styles, its uneasy alliance between searing rhythms and mellow harmonies, its structural weaknesses – make it the most difficult of the quartets to pull off convincingly, and – like many before them – the Belcea proved sadly unequal to the task. In the first movement, the musicians could have done with just a touch more lyricism, while the strangely warped second movement and jaunty third movement were perfectly well played but ultimately uninspiring. Only the muted finale brought redemption, with all four instruments playing a beautifully wrought variation of the sad opening theme. The final, seemingly optimistic wisp of melody hung in the air like a question mark – a haunting, fragmentary finish.

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