A full house welcomed the Belcea Quartet tonight as they opened a series of Bartk concerts.
They performed the first three of his string quartets (the second three are to be played next Saturday, 10 June); this concert will be repeated on Radio 3 on 11 June.
The reputation of the Belcea Quartet, and particularly their attachment to Bartk’s music, precedes them. They are known for their vivacious performance style and vigorous attack, which never compromises their attention to detail.
The concert opened with the strikingly lamenting tones of String Quartet No. 1, Op.7. They were played with crisp entries which cut into the dirge-like atmosphere of the movement.
Bartk’s String Quartet No. 1 was composed between 1908 and 1909 when the composer was 27. At that point in his life he was still heavily influenced by Romantic composers such as Strauss and Wagner. This opening to his body of string quartets clearly draws from these sources. The texture is interspersed with polyphonic, chromatic sighs.
The Belcea Quartet has a wonderful sense of ensemble. As with all great string quartets, they rely on the most subtle of indications between each other. Each instrument is given its rightful importance, whilst Corina Belcea-Fisher is very definitely the leader on the first violin.
This dynamic is exemplified through the balance between the strong cello bass and the other parts; the cello provides a grounding for the entire movement. This stylistic device is typical of the Eastern European sound, which Bartk is so well known for.
The String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17, was written between 1915 and 1917. War was tormenting Europe and the creativity of artists was either censored or stifled. Bartk’s quartet opens into a heart-wrenching world of discordant pain.
The second quartet still relies on arching Romantic phrases and includes a beautiful folk-based melody played over guitar-like strumming on the cello. Perhaps Quartet No. 1 should have been followed by No. 3 (1927), which is much more modern and draws influences from the Germanic Expressionist School, particularly Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite.
Bartk’s Quartet No. 3 was his most successful to date. It was awarded first prize in the Musical Fund Society’s chamber music competition in Philadelphia. It is clear why it is so successful. This piece showcases the composer’s unique compositional style. His nationalistic tendencies and his interest in experimentation come across with the inclusion of folk melodies and through the score’s indications for ‘special effects’. It is an exciting piece full of arresting rhythms and intense textures. The Belcea Quartet handled the conversational interchange between the instruments with a fresh, light approach.
If a point was trying to be made about Bartk’s chronological development then it was at the expense of a contrasting and interesting programme. The evening should have started with Quartet No. 2, as it was too macabre for the conclusion of a concert. Next should have been the contrasting Quartet No.3, which was an unwise choice to end with due to its ‘unfinished’ final tonality. Finally, the vivacious and youthful Quartet No. 1 would have made a suitable and uplifting finale.
Flawless energetic playing is something we’ve come to expect from the Belcea Quartet. It is a shame that the programme wasn’t more intelligently arranged. Nevertheless it was an invigorating evening of the highest standard.