Without doubt, the Belcea Quartet’s delivery of Bartk’s six string quartets was the highlight of the Wigmore Hall’s Bartk Festival.
The performances also provided the framework by virtue of starting the Festival with quartets Nos. 1-3 on 3 June and performing Nos. 4-6 as the penultimate concert on 10 June.
Both of their concerts were very well attended; they clearly established a strong fan base and deservedly so.
Sadly, their 10 June performance was their last concert in their capacity as the Wigmore’s resident string quartet. However, this was definitely not their last concert far from it!
The most remarkable aspect of the Belcea Quartet is their faultless ensemble playing. This attribute should be the obvious basis for any chamber ensemble but, more often than not, that is not the case. Though musically it is of no relevance, I could not help being pleased by hearing representatives of four nations Rumania, UK, Poland and France playing in such harmony (if I am allowed a pun).
Quartet No. 4 consists of five movements. The programme note for the concert attributed, correctly, the third (slow) movement to Bartk’s style of ‘night music’. However, the opening 34 bar-long exquisite cello solo (beautifully played by Belcea cellist Antoine Lederlin) can be attributed to the ‘hora lunga’, an ancient Rumanian folk style known as the ‘long song’. And though Bartk does indeed work ‘at a high level of abstraction’, relentless folk drumming is evident in the very exciting fifth movement.
The performance of these string quartets demands virtuosity which the Belcea demonstrated in abundance. The fast fourth movement of Quartet No. 4 is composed for pizzicato (string plucking) all the way through. This is tough both on the playing fingers and on the instruments: no wonder that all instruments had to be tuned after this movement!
The most unexpected moment in Quartet No. 5 comes towards the end, in the fifth movement. It is a very simple tune, imitating most probably a barrel organ. If played as sensitively as the Belcea Quartet played it, it shocks by its simplicity. Otherwise it can sound banal and senseless.
Quartet No. 6 starts with a 13 bar-long viola solo melody. Belcea violist Krzysztof Chorzelski played it from memory and truly beautifully. The same melody, though not exactly in the same form, is played by the cello in the introduction to the second movement and by the first violin in the introduction to the third movement. We meet sections of this theme in the fourth (last) movement too. The Belcea did full justice to this painful melody.
The Belcea Quartet comes pretty near to perfection. However, the dance elements (present in all Bartk quartets) were often missing in their performance. I hasten to add that folk song and/or folk dance is evident in almost all Bartk compositions. All performers of Bartk should be very aware of this!