Debussy Dutilleux Ravel SQs Belcea EMI CDZ5740202

Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2002 and the recording is still available.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor, Op 10
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
Ainsi la nuit
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F major
Belcea String Quartet
rec. 2000, Potton Hall, UK
Reviewed as EMI Classics release
Warner Classics 5740202 [71]

Formed in 1994 at the Royal College of Music, the Belcea Quartet are a promising young group whose progress has already been partially charted by concert reviews in Seen and Heard [Feb 2000 Apr 2000 Dec 2001]. Their multinational make up obviously is tremendously fertile (they hail from Romania, Poland and Scotland). They were winners at both the 1999 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition and the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition in the same year. In May of this year (2001) they took the Chamber Ensemble Prize at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards.

In a collectively-written statement of intent which accompanies the disc, they sensibly say that they would like to live with the Viennese classics a little longer and so decided to turn their attention to the French repertoire.

The Debussy and Ravel quartets are hardly under-represented in the catalogue. The musicians claim that they ‘feel a certain attraction for [this] music – particularly the wonderful freshness of expression and original sonorities’. The laudable inclusion of the Dutilleux is not unique, but it does make for a satisfying listening experience (the Juilliard Quartet issued a disc with exactly this coupling in 1994, on Sony SK52554). What is special about this group is their sensitivity to the composers’ wishes: they are particularly close to the Dutilleux, having worked with the composer on Ainsi la nuit.

The warm performance of the Debussy is characterised by a certain spring in its step and a lively response to ornaments, but it is in the still desolation of the slow movement that they seem to be most at home. The pizzicati of the Scherzo were apparently inspired by Javanese gamelan: they are imbued with the boundless energy of youth in this performance.

The Ravel is lighter in texture than the Debussy. Indeed, the first movement gives the impression of spur-of-the-moment improvisation, while in reality everything is carefully balanced. The Belcea Quartet’s sensitivity to instrumental colour means that they can realise the frequent shifts of the second movement. They bring the same tenderness to Ravel’s slow movement that they brought to Debussy’s.

Competition is indeed fierce, especially as EMI have recently re-released the Alban Berg Quartet’s accounts of these two classics on EMI CDM 5 67550-2 (coupled with works for this medium by Stravinsky review). The Quartetto Italiano’s finely-honed versions are on Philips 50, 464 699-2 (this time, though, with no coupling review) But, to their credit, the Belcea Quartet easily keep their head above the musico-critical waters.

The Dutilleux may well be the deciding factor: the Belcea Quartet brings an authority beyond its years to their performance. The players relish the elusive textures and harmonies of this rarefied atmosphere. Written between 1973 and 1976, this piece has already established itself in the repertoire as a twentieth-century masterpiece for this medium. This is difficult but rewarding music, requiring full concentration both from performers and listeners. It is in seven sections, with four ‘parentheses’. The stasis achieved at times is breathtaking, as is their almost total immersion In this sound-world, and this account can sit easily on the shelves with that of the Arditti Quartet on Montaigne MO782125.

There is little doubt that this disc represents the flowering of talent of an ensemble that, if they continue on their present well-chosen path, will achieve great things.

Unhesitatingly recommended.

Colin Clarke

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