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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
CD 1
String Quartet No.1, Op.7 (1908-9) [30:47]
String Quartet No.3 (1927) [14:51]
String Quartet No.5 (1934) [30:43]
CD 2
String Quartet No.2, Op.17 (1915-17) [26:11]
String Quartet No.4 (1928) [23:42]
String Quartet No.6 (1939) [29:35]
Belcea Quartet
rec. 1-5 April, 28 July-2 August 2007, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 3944002 [76:40 + 79:47]
Experience Classicsonline

Anyone who doubts the prowess of the Belcea Quartet will surely have their view altered by these impressive performances. Having attended several of their recitals and owning their recordings I am confident that the Belcea can rightly take its place amongst the very finest ensembles on the world stage. I remain enthusiastic over the Belcea’s 2006 release of the Mozart String Quartets: K.465 Dissonance and K.499 Hoffmeister on EMI Classics (3444552 - see review). I have also reviewed the superb Belcea set of the Britten String Quartets also on EMI (5579682 - see review); one of my ‘2005 Records of the Year’.
I believe that these six quartets, written between 1908-39, are the most important of the twentieth century and amongst the most significant in the repertoire. They could be said to illustrate the development of Bartók’s musical career. During the 1950s and 1960s they were regarded as amongst the most austere and challenging imaginable; frequently incomprehensible to the mainstream listener. Now a sea-change in attitude means that they are generally seen as more approachable, essential listening and more often programmed in recital.
The String Quartet No.1 completed in 1909 is the most romantic of the series. Bartók composed the score it seems in the wake of his infatuation with a student whilst a piano teacher at the Budapest Academy of Music. Cast in three movements it shows the remaining influence of Mahler and Strauss and bears the melodies of the folk music he was collecting. In the Lento the playing of the Belceas evoked for me a landscape of cold, bleak Arctic tundra. Notable in the central movement is the appearance of the ‘thunder-clap’ cello pizzicato at 7:38 and 7:59. The strings saw and gnaw away in the rhythmic opening section of the final movement, giving way to a calmer state that soon develops a significant agitation. Throughout I was struck by how much quieter the Belceas are with slower tempi compared to say the Takács on Decca.
The three movement String Quartet No.2 was composed between 1915 and 1917 in Rákoskeresztúr, Budapest during the unfolding horrors of the Great War. At this time Bartók was working on his ballet The Wooden Prince. Musicologist David Ewen writes that the String Quartet No.2, “sheds derivative influences in favor of strength, brusqueness, primitivism …” In the Moderato the Belceas are robust, communicating an eerie sense of the primeval. The driving, spiky rhythms of the central movement are notable and the Lento has a shadowy character redolent of a desolate wilderness.
From Budapest in 1927 the acerbic String Quartet No.3 is atonal and shows Bartók toying with the serial techniques. It is sometimes thought that he was inspired to compose the score by Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite from 1926. The densely packed score is in two parts. The Belceas are convincingly characterful and not overly threatening in the Prima parte: Moderato. Their performance in the Seconda parte: Allegro is clean and precise, attacking with genuine spirit. In the closing movement, elaborately marked Recapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato - Coda: Allegro molto, the players communicate strongly, contrasting an amorous yearning with a degree of brusqueness.
Bartók composed his String Quartet No.4 in Budapest at the time of writing his two Rhapsodies in their original versions for violin and piano. The five movement score contains progressive and abstract music. Cast in an ‘arch structure’ the opening movement is related thematically to the final movement and the second movement to the fourth, with the third movement Non troppo lento providing the central core. The Allegro abounds in perplexing and frenzied activity and in the Prestissimo, con sordino I could visualise insects scurrying around in the sweltering humidity of the tropical rainforest. At the heart of the quartet, the Non troppo lento movement, the Belceas convey a sense of slow motion and the Allegretto pizzicato is razor sharp and highly rhythmic. The players communicate a mechanical quality to the Finale, Allegro molto with the slow central section providing only a short respite.
The String Quartet No.5 from 1934 preceded the famous Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. Following a similar design to the preceding quartet the score utilises the ‘arch structure’ around a central Scherzo: alla bulgarese. Here Bartók has settled on a generally unifying tonality. In the opening movement Allegro the Belceas offer shattering, at times, grotesque syncopations. With expanses of considerable breadth in the Adagio molto the playing has an apt sense of nocturnal mystery. Bright and sharp-edged Bulgarian rhythms strongly feature in the Scherzo marked alla bulgarese and the Andante has a wealth of expressive intensity. I enjoyed the dance-influenced Finale: Allegro vivace with its urgent and wild disposition.
Cast in four movements the String Quartet No.6 was composed in Budapest in 1939 just after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was written around the time of the Divertimento for String Orchestra which was the last score that Bartók composed prior to his flight to America to escape the war in Europe. Once again, as with the preceding quartet, Bartók decided to employ a constant tonality. The opening movement Mesto: Vivace is given a confident performance here with concentrated and restless power. A sense of dark menace prevails in the Mesto: Marcia, although melody strives to rise to the surface in this emotional roller-coaster. An atmosphere of dark menace is maintained in the Mesto: Burletta with a thorny burst of aggression and contrasting suggestions of happier times. In the final movement Mesto the Belceas sustain a heart-wrenching sadness in music that sinks into a pit of bitter depression.
Recordings of the Bartók String Quartets are well served in the catalogues and there are several sets that I am pleased to have in my collection. These accounts from the Belceas are splendidly performed but when compared to the versions from the outstanding Takács Quartet a wide gulf is starkly noticeable. The Takács, my first choice performers in these quartets, provide thrilling and raw-edged performances of great intensity and power. Recorded in 1996 in Germany the Takács are recorded to demonstration standard and their double set is available on Decca 445 297-2.
Other splendid versions include the Alban Berg Quartet on EMI who play with energy, fire and significant skill. That set was recorded in 1987 on EMI Double Forte 7 47720-8 and re-issued on EMI Gemini 3609472. The Emerson perform with passion and excitement, displaying great virtuosity. Recorded in 1988 this set won a Grammy and a Gramophone Record of the Year award. It was on Deutsche Grammophon 423 657-2 and was reissued in 2007 on 477 6322. For Naxos the Vermeer Quartet play with skill and vigour, although taking a less raw-edged approach than many rivals. The Vermeers were recorded in Ontario, Canada between 2001 and 2004 on Naxos 8.557543-44. The Zehetmair on ECM has recorded the Bartók String Quartet No. 5. This is an insightful version of technical precision and impressive security of ensemble. Recorded in 2006 at Götzis, Austria, the Zehetmair disc is on ECM New Series 1874 (c/w Hindemith String Quartet No. 4, Op.22).
The Bartók String Quartets are decently recorded and splendidly performed by the Belcea Quartet. However by some distance the set from the Takács on Decca is the one to have.
Michael Cookson


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