September 17, 2008 / 11:31 AM / 9 years ago

Belcea Quartet plays Bartok: "A lifetime in one day"

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Romanian violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher from the highly acclaimed Belcea Quartet feels right at home playing Bartok's quartets, a landmark of 20th-century music, even though the composer was Hungarian.

"Those rhythms, that I've grown up with, feel in my blood," the London-based first violinist of the Belcea (pronounced 'bel-chuh') Quartet says of her Romanian upbringing.

As well they should. Bela Bartok, born in Nagyszentmiklos in 1881, is Hungary's most famous 20th-century composer, but his homeland of Transylvania was ceded to Romania after Hungary's defeat in World War I.

Bartok spent his formative years scouring the Romanian countryside to record and preserve thousands of folk tunes, many of which eventually worked their way into his musical idiom -- the shifting rhythms, haunting melodies and even some of the dissonance that make Bartok's music sound like no other.

London audiences will get a rare treat on Sept 20 when the Belcea string quartet, with its blend of East and West European players, performs all six Bartok quartets on one day in the Wigmore Hall.

It will be intense and personal but rewarding because this monument of music encapsulates a life lived in a turbulent time.

Bartok was born into the relative innocence of the turn of the 19th century and died, despondent and nearly penniless, in self-imposed exile in New York in 1945.

"Bartok was one of the most important composers of the last century, he was a man of his time and the music reflects this because every period of his output is represented in this music," said Krzysztof Chorzelski, 36, the Polish violist.

"I hope it will feel at the end of one day like a lifetime."

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Playing a composer's entire output of quartets, symphonies or sonatas over a short span has become a cottage industry, suggesting the classical music world is groping to find a "hook" to lure listeners.

The Belcea Quartet, formed 14 years ago by four students (the cellist has since changed) at London's prestigious Royal College of Music, has succeeded better than most and been widely praised in the international chamber music circuit.

They have a recording contract with major label EMI and have released at least half a dozen CDs; they have a full calendar of concerts and received rave reviews.

"The pulse-rate is up -- the Belcea's brilliant Bartok beats the best," the British music magazine Gramophone enthused in a review of the group's two-CD set of the quartets (EMI 394400-2).

What is the secret to their success?

"I think at the very early stages we were incredibly fortunate that we were still students and we didn't have the sorts of pressures that a lot of young groups have," said Laura Samuel, 32, the London-born second violin.

"When you've finished your studies or you're coming to the end of your studies and you desperately want to find someone else you want to play with ... that puts an immense amount of pressure on a group to succeed."

Tell that to Frenchman Antoine Lederlin, 33, the quartet's cellist for the last two and a half years. He tried out with about 10 other quartets before landing a chair with the Belcea.

Now it seems just right -- two women, two men; two Easterners, two Westerners.

Or as Chorzelski put it: "These two worlds need each other."

The Belcea perform the Bartok Quartets at Wigmore Hall on Saturday, Sept 20 beginning at 11:30 a.m., box office +44 207 935 2141; www.wigmore-hall.org.uk

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