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Bartók, String Quartets 1-3
. Belcea Quartet. Wigmore Hall, London. 03.06.2006 (ED)

Central to the Bartók Festival currently under way at Wigmore Hall is the Belcea Quartet’s first UK performance of the quartet cycle, given across two concerts. The six works, which comment on the quartet as a compositional form are also arguably Bartók’s most valuable legacy. That they should feature amongst the Belcea’s final contributions as Wigmore Hall’s resident string quartet was particularly apt and the sense of anticipation was palpable amongst the packed audience.

String quartet no. 1 (1908-9) begins the cycle in expansive fashion and pays a variety of compositional debts along the way. The imprint of Bach can be sensed through extensive employment of counterpoint alongside late romantic references such as Reger and Strauss. Even Debussy joins the fray momentarily. All of these influences however do not disguise the fact that Bartók’s own compositional voice is already on the move. The dirge-like Lento opening movement was atmospherically projected by the Belceas with notably acerbic instrumental lines at times. The second movement was given with a sense of inner drive and purpose possessed of not a little deliberate tonal roughness that made perfect contextual sense. The final movement, once again assuming an overtly brusque character, derived from folk-inspired tunes. Here, the brusqueness was particularly thrilling in performance, although never over-emphasised and so all the more effective.

The second quartet (1915-17) is one of the bleakest pieces of chamber music in existence, perhaps even the bleakest. Born out of frustrations at being a virtual prisoner because of the war, Bartók pitches the audience into a world of despair and then proceeds to tighten tension still further. The Belceas’ performance carried an entirely appropriate rawness at its core, which combined effectively with attacking bite to the entries. However, awareness of the subtle sonorities often at work did not escape them, particularly in the second movement where this was exploited to give the impression of distracted thoughts conveyed through the music. These thoughts persisted with playful interaction and alternated with an almost mechanical rhythmic presence on occasion. The third movement Lento came across as a nocturnal scene calculated to disturb, with the musical lines tossing and turning restlessly. Little hope of daybreak presents itself. Compositionally, Schoenberg’s expressionistic language seems not far removed and the rest that Bartók impatiently craved remains unrealised. That the Belcea quartet’s performance realised this to such a staggering degree left, in its wake, a real sense of exhilaration at the level of music making they achieve.

String quartet no. 3 (1927) is the most compact of the entire cycle, lasting a mere 17 minutes and is the first that is wholly mature Bartók in its language. The willingness to explore dissonance is an integral element, as it is in the fourth quartet, and such opportunities were enthusiastically grasped by the Belcea quartet. The wide variety of effects called for were delivered with a sense of fun too and interspersed the brief backward glances to romanticism: many of the slides appeared as wry laughs aimed at the sound world that Bartók had previously explored. Violence – almost percussive in character – mingles with lyricism to call for great dynamic control in playing that was realised with some effusiveness. The work’s coda indicates that questions remain within Bartók’s mind: can a state of rest be reached? No: compositional ideas persist which indicate a drive forward to the fourth quartet. Drive that is matched by the Belceas in performance and increases the desire for their next concert all the more. A week can be a long time in music too.

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on 11 June. String quartets 4-6 will be performed on 10 June.

Evan Dickerson





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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)