Sunday, 21 September 2008

Bartók Day - The six string quartets: Belcea Quartet, 21 September 2008

Wigmore Hall

Corina Belcea-Fisher (violin)
Laura Samuel (violin)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (violoncello)

The Belcea Quartet’s survey of Bartók’s six canonical string quartets took the form of three concerts held throughout the day. Formerly the Wigmore Hall’s quartet-in-residence (2001-6) and with a recently released recording of the Bartók quartets to its name, the Belcea was an obvious choice for this duty and privilege. It did not disappoint.

In the first quartet (1908-9), we hear the emergence of Bartók’s individual style. One would probably guess that any given section was by the composer, but by the end one could be in no doubt. The Belcea Quartet’s reading therefore assumed an exploratory tone and set the scene for the ensuing performances: sounding both as one and as four. The work’s opening motif received an aptly lachrymose presentation, the music being developed with a sense of opening out. A passionate intensity marked the first movement’s middle section, inevitably making one recall Bartók’s unfortunate liaison with Stefi Geyer. The open-endedness of that movement was finely captured. In the Allegretto, we heard a rhythmic drive that never sounded merely brash; nor did it occlude Bartók’s characteristic melodic profusion. I felt that were odd moments early on in the finale when the players became a little too relaxed, but this was soon compensated for with truly energetic passion, not least upon the advent of its soaring Transylvanian theme. Thereafter no one could look back: Bartók’s voice had asserted itself once and for all. The second quartet (1915-17) received a reading that rightly emphasised its ongoing developmental qualities. Recapitulations were not merely different in their notes – they could hardly fail to be, given what Bartók had written – but they truly sounded different: possible only at the time of hearing, dependent upon what had come before. That to the first movement evinced a real sense of terror when we heard the four instruments in unison, swiftly followed by consolation. The final ’cello notes were duly haunting. What we might call Bartók’s ‘composed Arabism’ was very much to the fore in the following movement. This was never mere local colour but musical invention. There was a dreamy, Bergian middle section, which, splendid in its inevitability, paved the way for seamlessly handled, almost Carter-like metrical modulation. The frozen landscape of the closing Lento was captured perfectly: this was not to be thawed, but to remain desolate, although no less beautiful for that.

The opening bar of the third quartet (1927) announced a new world, unmistakeably Bartókian, yet closer to some – though by no means all – of the qualities of the Second Viennese School. In Adorno’s words, ‘What is decisive is the formative power of the work; the iron concentration, the wholly original tectonics.’ Webern came to mind in the shards of the Prima parte, whilst Schoenbergian ‘developing variation’ was heard on a broader temporal plane in this structurally impregnable account. Bartók’s tougher, more compressed style was never softened, enabling his violent lyricism to sing all the more freely. The pizzicato opening of the Seconda parte was superbly presented by ’cellist Antoine Lederlin; above all, it sounded so utterly melodious. Indeed, it was remarkable how Bartók’s melodies grew out of, rather than stood opposed to, the obstinacy of his rhythmic repetition. It was a hallmark of this performance and of that of the fourth quartet (1928), that any instrumental ‘effects’, for instance the passages played sul ponticello, were impeccably musical, sounding fully integrated into the composition. In lesser performances, they can sound too much in their own right, but not here. The fourth quartet likewise received a highly developmental reading. It may be composed on a larger scale than its predecessor, but this does not imply any loosening of construction. Its arch-form was rendered not only crystal clear but also powerfully inevitable. The intensity of the first movement’s coda was quite overwhelming, all the more so for being followed by the strange, muted whisperings of the second. In the slow movement that lies at the heart of the work, the folklike principal ’cello theme was impeccably ‘accompanied’ by the other player’s chords, leading us inevitably into the spellbinding world of Bartókian night music. It would be difficult to find any fault with the all-pizzicato fourth movement, whilst the powerfully projected Bulgarian rhythms of the finale never masked the strong thematic connections with the rest of the quartet.

And so to the evening concert, for the final two quartets. The Adornian ‘iron concentration’ of the fifth quartet (1934) is every bit as great as that of the third and fourth, but the Belcea Quartet managed to capture in tandem with this its more conciliatory features too, not least the persistence of its centring upon B-flat. Bach came to the fore in the flawless projection of the work’s mirror formation, but the reflections within that mirror ensured that this was no easy symmetry. The brazen fortissimo of the first movement’s central section pounded itself not only into one’s consciousness but also into the imagination. Night music was once again idiomatically captured at the heart of the following Adagio molto; the mystery and danger of the insect-like pizzicatos registered powerfully – and meaningfully. And in the fifth movement, the amusement of the banal hurdy-gurdy tune (con indifferenza) was apparent, without being made to stand out like a sore thumb. It is, after all, an inverted, diatonic relative of the movement’s opening theme. If Bach stands behind much of the fifth quartet, then Beethoven acquires the relative advantage in the sixth (1939). The transformative reappearances of the mesto introductory material to the first three movements were truly fulfilled in the entirely mesto finale, providing a culmination that not only evoked the celestial ecstasy of late Beethoven but also brought Mahler to mind. He had actually been there from the opening viola solo, performed with tender intimacy by Krzysztof Chorzelski and was apparent once again in the savagery of the Burletta. The destination was inevitable but this far from negated the horrors one might have to experience during the journey. And the final ’cello pizzicato statement of the mesto theme provided a wholly appropriate sense both of culmination and of open-endedness. These great works are inexhaustible, yet their depths were truly plumbed in the Belcea’s fine performances.

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