Time was, and not so long ago, when ordinary music lovers still regarded Bartók as the ultimate in fearsome cacophony. Yet here was a packed audience for the opening of the Wigmore Hall's well-planned, week-long Bartók Festival of concerts and study days to hear the Belcea Quartet expound the first three of those now classic six string quartets.
But, glancing at the rapt listeners, one wondered what they were making of it. Not only do these earlier quartets advance from an anguished, already almost atonal counterpoint to some of the most grindingly folkloristic textures, even in Bartók, but the Belcea's readings were of almost unremitting intensity. The slowly convolving chromatic violin duo that launches the String Quartet No 1, Op 7 (1909) was already tremulous with tension.
No string quartet currently in orbit commands a wider or more vivid range of nuance, colour and dynamics than the Belcea, and the Bartók quartets are full of innovatory textures and colour effects. Just occasionally one wondered if, in characterising each moment of the First String Quartet to the fullest, they were in danger of obscuring the longer-term continuity, just as one wondered whether some of the finer details of the compressed one-movement String Quartet No 3 (1927) got lost in the gutsy relish with which these players attacked it.
But these were mere qualifications in what, with its completion at the end of the festival, should prove one of the outstanding accounts of the quartets in recent years. The reading of the String Quartet No 2, Op 17 (1917) showed them at their best in their natural unfolding of the ebb and flow of the fraughtly lyrical opening movement, their pointed account of the scherzo, with its driving North African rhythms and scuttering dash to the finish, and their unflinching delivery of that frightening finale with its bleak, questioning phrases and answering silences.
Whatever might be said for the subsequent quartet series of Shostakovich, Robert Simpson or Elliott Carter, the Belcea convinced us anew that the Bartóks still constitute the cycle of the 20th century.Reuse content