4/5‘A keystone of the chamber repertoire’, says the Observer’s Anthony Holden of Bartok’s six string quartets, which are less than one-hundred years old. This recording is the tenth CD by the World-renowned Belcea quartet, which formed at the Royal College of Music in 1994, and is now the quartet in residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.The quartets vary hugely, from the romantic first quartet, which displays Bartok’s love for Stefi Geyer, one of the students at the Budapest Academy of Music, to the final quartet written in 1938, which was the last he wrote in Hungary since he travelled to the USA to escape World War II. The agitation and sadness juxtaposed in this quartet were due not only to the worsening situation in Europe in the lead up to the war, but also to the illness of Bartok’s mother, which led to her death in the year following the quartet’s composition.The unconventional rhythms and bizarre playing techniques (such as col legno: playing with the wood of the bow) written by Bartok add to the mystery of his music, and are carried off fantastically by the Belcea quartet. This CD is full of fascinating music, influenced not only by composers contemporaneous with Bartok, such as Alban Berg, whose piano music Bartok performed, but also by traditional Romanian folk music, which is evident from, among other things, the uneven ‘aksak’ rhythm used.The Belceas have performed all of Bartok’s quartets at the Wigmore hall, where they were quartet in residence until 2006, and their vivacity is well suited to Bartok’s compositions. An accomplished performance throughout makes the CD well worth buying, although three hours of Bartok (over two CDs) in one go can be very draining for the listener!