The Belcea Quartet Plays Janáček & Ligeti

Belcea Qrt

JANÁČEK: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. LIGETI: String Quartet No. 1, “Metamorphoses Nocturnes” / Alpha Classics 454

As my regular readers know, I consider the Belcea Quartet to be one of the finest such groups in the world right now. Their performances of almost everything they do are tight, exciting and brilliantly played. With that being said, however, I must admit that none of their recordings, except for the Brahms String Quartets and Piano Quintet, are of a quality that surpasses other versions on the market.

Why this is has, I think, more to do with the fact that they often follow other outstanding recordings of various string quartets and that their interpretations, though always valid, do not necessarily surpass those other versions. Now, please understand that this is not a negative comment on Belcea’s quality so much as it is possibly just bad timing.

On this recording, I found their approach to the Janáček Quartets, which are among my very favorite of his works and also among my favorite string quartets, period, to combine energy with elegance. In this respect they are rather different from the brilliant performances of the Quartetto Energie Nove, whose recordings of these same quartets I praised so highly three years ago. The difference lies in the phrasing, particularly in the first (“Kreutzer”) quartet of 1923, which is gentler than that of the other recording. They bring a greater feeling of intimacy to the music that I find appealing, although in a direct A/B comparison I feel a greater attraction to Quartetto Energie Nove’s approach.

But of course there are always different ways of hearing the same music, and what Belcea does here is clearly valid. The only drawback of their interpretation, in my mind, is that it does not pull the structure of the quartet together quite as tightly. In addition, I liked Energie Nove’s brighter, leaner sonority which has an edgier quality. Belcea finds some of this edginess in the second and fourth movements of Quartet No. 1 but, to a certain extent, it sounds more like a very good rehearsal, lacking the excitement of a live performance. In this respect, their recording is closer in feeling to the honorable, older performances of the Smetana Quartet. Nonetheless, I’m sure there will be some listeners who prefer their sweeter tone and will not mind this because Belcea does bring a greater intimacy to the music.

Indeed, they bring a similar aesthetic to the second quartet, subtitled “Intimate Letters,” which reflects Janáček’s late-in-life love affair with Kamile Stösslova. Here, this sort of approach may indeed seem more appropriate, as it expresses the composer’s most intimate feelings towards her, and to my ears the structure of the work is better served here than in the first quartet. One may also appreciate Belcea’s warmer sound more in this work. As for me, I still lean towards Quartetto Energie Nove but can also appreciate this version on its own terms.

Rather than include another work by Janáček, the Belcea Quartet chose to end this recording with György Ligeti’s first quartet, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” Here, too, they bring a greater lyricism to the music than is commonly heard, which I liked as an alternative though not quite as much as I liked the Arditti String Quartet’s recording on Sony Classical. Belcea does, however, achieve a nice, bouncing rhythm in the fast section that begins just before the seven-minute mark.

Bottom line: nice performances that will clearly appeal to some listeners, just not necessarily to me. I just don’t respond to touchy-feely.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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