Here was an idea that even Bartók himself would have thought a little crazy: all six of his string quartets - any one of which would form the exhausting climax of a conventional programme - performed in chronological order, over a single day. Very different in structure, the quartets are unusually consistent in their intensity. That may be only a little over two and a half hours in terms of notes, but it's an awful lot of music.
Live and on disc, it is music that the Belcea Quartet has made convincingly its own. They split the six into three pairs - morning, afternoon and evening - and those who stayed with them through the day were rewarded with something extraordinary on several levels, not least the physical. In music that hurls itself off one precipice after another, the Belceas played with the force of sprinters, but the stamina of marathon runners. Each quartet seemed more exciting, more highly coloured than the last. And yet while the players wrung the maximum piquancy from the swoops, snaps and squeaks with which Bartók colours his folk-inflected counter-point, these special effects always had their place in a bigger musical picture.
The day began lyrically, a cello tune of surprising voluptuousness breaking through after the violins' careful opening duet; it ended in heavy silence following a superbly controlled finale to the Sixth Quartet, at once despairing and valedictory. In between, the players sustained a fizzing level of raw energy, giving the whirlwind finale of the Third Quartet the breadth it deserves; creating a taut, charged stillness in the slow movement at the heart of the Fourth; and, in the Fifth, skipping mercurially between forceful aggression and benign sweetness, in what is essentially the same musical material. An enormous achievement from a world-class ensemble.
Erica Jeal, The Guardian, 23 September 2008
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