Awarded Chamber Music Ensemble of the Year by Germany's Echo Klassik Awards, nominated for the 2008 Gramophone Awards, winner of CD of the Year on Viertakt, Radio 4 (Netherlands)
There is a maturity and authority to these performances which some quartets never achieve at all. Technically the playing is impeccable, with superb intonation, something particularly evident in the passages in unison and octaves, where many another group has been found wanting. The tone is always clear and focused, with a touch of warmth to relieve the music even when it is at its most bleak. It is the sheer musical conviction of these readings that is astounding. Everything has sense and purpose; every detail, clear in itself, is part of the greater whole. We can see the trees, and see the wood as well. This set must surely be a benchmark not only in the development of the Belcea Quartet but in the CD catalogue.
Tim Homfray, The Strad, April 2008
Bartok's quartets are one of the great musical collision points between modernism and romanticism. How to handle the tension between their expressive gestures and constructivist designs is one of the abiding issues for performers and one reason why even the plethora of fine available recordings cannot remotely exhaust their riches. Getting the best of all worlds interpretatively is hardly a realistic aim. Even so, there are long stretches where the Belceas come as close to the ideal as any ensemble I have heard.
Try the first few minutes of Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and marvel at the gradation of forte and fortissimo, or piano and pianissimo, which helps to give entire movements far more convincing shape than less presisely observant ensembles achieve (even the Takacs). Try the outer movements of No 5 and marvel at the gear changes negotiated smoothly, instantly and unanimously, yet never as ends in themselves, always accompanied by a sense of expressive-dramatic purpose. Try virtually every movement in fact, and revel, as the Belceas do, in the interplay of the lines, even in passages where others seem thankful just to come through unscathed.
Clearly immense thought has been given to tone quality. In the first movement of No 1, for instance, the Belceas point the periodic arrivals on consonant harmonics by withdrawing vibrato, and instantly the as yet not fully mature Bartok's straggly structure gains sharpness of profile. They apply the same ploy in the much tauter environment of the first movement of No 5, and with similarly revelatory results. At the other extreme, their sustained tonal intensity makes the most barbabic onrushes exhilarating rather than exhausting, neither too streamlined nor too effortful. When the score is bare of instructions, as in the first slow movement of No 5, they take it at its word and uncover a hypnotic, staring blankness. And when the invitation to humour is extended, as in the finale of the same quartet, they seize it with full-blooded, yet never self-serving, relish.
Before surrendering to the power of these performances, I wondered if there was going to be enough ethnic tang and zest, enough wildness and strangeness, enough sultry longing. Yet the central movement of No 2 is marked molto capriccioso, not barbaro, and that's exactly what comes across, while the coda is pushed daringly close to the edge, sounding like the distant fluttering of giant moths - not as precisely by the book as the Emersons but vastly more imaginative and emotionally telling - while the slow finale has a superbly intense accumulation at its heart.
In short, the Belceas are more than worthy rivals to the best on disc. And at least until the excitement of this first encounter subsides, my pulse-rate tells me that they are not just on a par but maybe even top of the heap.
David Fanning, Gramophone Magazine, May 2008, Editor's Choice
The Belcea Quartet bring to these works all their formidable commitment, power and technical accomplishment. These are masterpieces central to the string quartet's twentieth-century repertoire and these performances are fully worthy of their stature. The tonal, dynamic and expressive range here is enormous: the instruments not only sing and dance but rasp and clatter. The players sustain a level of technical perfection that no other set has so consistently reached and all these performances are unfailingly eloquent, with a clear, firmly directed interpretative vision - never passive and never narcissistic. Intonation is particularly fine: Bartok's densest harmonies speak with ringing purity. The Quartet's vibrato is thus at the service of the music - and some of the most expressive moments of the cycle are those where they employ none at all.
The early quartets receive performances just as fine as the later ones. The rich, full-bodied performance of the First is outstanding, not only often breathtakingly beautiful but carefully shaped (no mean feat: it can be a sprawling, problematic work). The folkloric interruptions which punctuate the first movement of the Second Quartet are exquisite; the Scherzo which follows is both exhilarating and technically superb - not only in its mad scurryings fore and aft (the pianissimo playing from 6'36" is skin-crawlingly fine) but in its more leisurely pizzicato moments. The exposed harmonies of the final Lento are performed with complete purity and no vibrato: entirely apt in the bleakest music Bartok would write for the medium until his last quartet.
The Sixth Quartet benefits particularly well from the Belcea Quartet's forthright brand of expression. The trio of the Marcia is a highlight, from the tormented lyricism of the cello's melody to the evocative pizzicato flappings of the viola. The Burletta as well has rarely sounded quite so satisfyingly horrible - in the best possible way. The closing pages of the final Mesto convey a singularly bleak message: again bleached of all vibrato.
EMI's recorded sound is clear and bright. The new recording can stand comparison with any of its distinguished predecessors: it is by some margin the most satisfying complete set I know. I recommend it in the strongest terms, to seasoned Bartokians and newcomers alike.
Carl Rosman, International Record Review, March 2008
Since Beethoven, no composer has expressed so much about his own musical personality and about the quartet form as Bartók, whose six studies in the genre span his mature career. The Belceas uncover a romantic innocence in the first quartet, the spiky sweetness of the second, grit and sinew in the third, the wistful intensity of the sixth. What's so reassuring about all these interpretations is their avoidance of exaggerated expressive vehemence.
Andrew Clarke, Financial Times, 1 March 2008
In these complex and fascinating masterpieces, the Belcea Quartet exemplify not only the coherence and dynamism to the first degree, but also their indisputable personality. One is immediately seduced by the energy of tone and tempi and by the intensity of the playing. Movement after movement , one discovers their force of character (Finale of Quartet no.1), their taste for risk-taking (Scherzo of Quartet no. 5, Prestissimo of Quartet no. 4), and the rare timbres of the Adagio Molto of Quartet no. 5. Bartók's deep-rooted affection for popular folk melody, the richness of his harmonic language, his vigorous rhythm and original melodies are portrayed with a permanent smile through continuous song and the layering of voices (Quartet no.2). The extreme harmonic tension (Quartet no. 3) and the violent musical language (Quartet no 4) are admirably experimented and revealed with determination and concentration. The accuracy of the notation's realisation recalls the Quatuor Alban Berg.
Jean-Michel Molkhou, Diapason, March 2008
The Belcea's new Bartók cycle joins the height of the works' representations on disc. Corina Belcea-Fisher plays with an exceptional musicality. The First, Second and to a lesser extent the Sixth Quartets seduce the listener through the players' layering of textures with rich and sumptuous coulours. In the Third Quartet, the Belceas, without sacrificing the contrasts, favour the timbral beauty.
Patrick Szersnovicz, Le Monde de la Musique, March 2008
Composer laureate of night terrors and shifting shadows, Bartók began his cycle of string quartets with a belated goodbye to the opulence of the 19th century and ended it with a desolate farewell to a desecrated continent. From the decadent swoon of the first quartet, through the watershed lento of the second, the fricative agitations of the third, the moonlit arcs of the fourth and fifth, and the wise misery of the sixth, these works are required listening, and are served handsomely in the Belcea Quartet's thoughtful reading. The tuning is impeccable, the expressive and dynamic range daring. First must-buy of the year.
Anna Picard, The Independent, 20 January 2008
As arguably the most significant and groundbreaking cycle of string quartets after Beethoven, Bartók's six form a vital part of every self-respecting ensemble's repertoire. The Belcea Quartet, which has already made estimable recordings of Britten, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert, is the latest to commit its thoughts on these ever-resourceful works to disc. As an encomium from the Romanian Cultural Institute in the booklet points out, violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher's Romanian roots invite a more than usually authentic connection to the folk-inspired elements of Bartók's quartet-writing (even if these do extend to influences from Hungary, Bulgaria and beyond, too).
And there is certainly a visceral quality to the playing of the whole ensemble that, without resorting to distortion or exaggeration, brings out the very physical nature of the composer's writing for strings. Rhythms are taut and Bartók's special effects - such as the multiplicity of slap pizzicatos in the second scherzo of No 4 - are carried off with aplomb, as are the more surreal moments of, for instance, No 6.
There is atmosphere, too, in the wistful opening of No 3 and the mysterious allegro molto of No 5, the extremes of expression and dynamics aided by a full and wide-ranging recording. There is also a sense of daring...Here again one senses the danger, but is reassured by the playing's confidence and insight that all will come right.
Matthew Rye, Daily Telegraph, 9 February 2008
For any quartet they represent a huge challenge, musically and technically. With their outstanding pedigree already firmly established, the Belcea Quartet have certainly earned the right to put their accounts of these key works onto disc...technically, these performances are impeccable, without a trace of insecurity... This is especially true of the First, unfolding with the same rapt care that the group would take over Beethoven's Op 131, which haunts so much of it, and the Third, in many ways the most elusive of the six, but here made to seem totally coherent and vividly plausible. The Second and the Fourth are, in their different ways, equally impressive. The lusher sound-world of the Second is particularly well caught.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 25 January 2008
Still a young group, the Belcea Quartet play Bartók's six masterly string quartets with the passion, technical command and folk inflections that most musicians only dream of. Having a Romanian-born leader helps, but each player shades in a thousand colours and sings out the peasant rhythms, giving full vent to Bartók's dazzling emotional kaleidoscope. These are thrilling performances, bound for classic status.
Geoff Brown, The Times, 18 January 2008
'Bartok's six quartets form the fundament of the early-20th-century quartet repertoire, so it's not surprising that the Belcea Quartet, among the finest of their generation, should have joined the ranks of those who have ascended this particular Parnassus and tackled the challenge of recording the cycle. The result is a sequence of confident, knowing, unfailingly rewarding accounts. The Belceas' style remains fundamentally youthful, yet they also offer spacious, expressionistic playing of enormous power and warmth where necessary, capture the evocative night music and scuttling, eerie scherzos of the Fourth Quartet to perfection, and embrace the late-Beethovenian scope of the Sixth with telling wisdom.
Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times, 20 January 2008
Firmly established as a keystone of the chamber repertoire, less than a century after they were written, Bartók's string quartets cover an enormous range of musical territory. From the romantic First to the overwhelmingly lachrymose Sixth, via a labyrinth of technical mastery and music complexity, Bartok shows himself intent on updating it for his own times and beyond. Recognising their importance, the Belcea Quartet lavish their own considerable skills on these masterly works in a two-disc set that deserves to win awards.
Anthony Holden, The Observer, 20 January 2008
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