Bartok: String Quartets Nos 1-6

WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1-6
PERFORMER: Belcea Quartet
The playing in these endlessly fascinating and rewarding pieces is supremely accomplished. The clarity and precision of such passages as the scurrying prestissimo coda of the middle movement of the Second Quartet, or the even faster trio of the Scherzo in No. 5, have to be heard to be believed. Distinguished Bartók cycles in recent years include those by the Alban Berg (EMI), Emerson (DG) and the Takács Quartets – but none more vividly conveys the music’s visceral excitement. Of course, there’s much more to Bartók than an agglomeration of percussive effects, and the Belcea nail their expressive colours firmly to the mast at the very start of the First Quartet, where the drooping melodic intervals are played with unashamed use of portamento. Most other players use a similar expressive slide here, too, though the Takács present the passage more plainly, without sacrificing anything of its inherent warmth.At the other end of the scale, it’s possible to feel the Belcea Quartet do not always make the important distinction between Bartók’s f and ff markings: the progressively more intense ‘leaping’ second subject in the first movement of No. 5, for instance, strikes me as a touch too aggressive throughout. And it’s a pity the haunting final bars of No. 6, with the cello offering a fragmentary pizzicato reminiscence of the work’s ‘motto’ theme, aren’t more delicate. But even those who already have the fine Takács recording may want to acquire this one, too.