BARTÓK: String Quartets 1-6 (complete).
Belcea Quartet.
EMI 94400 2 3 (F) (DDD) TT: 76:40 + 79:47

Bartók's string quartets have long been considered not only central to his achievement, but among the best quartets of the twentieth century. I first collected the Juilliard complete LP set, a good introduction, although the quartets back then were still considered "hard" new music, and the sense of struggle was evident in the Juilliard's wiry readings. Of the complete sets since, I've heard the Emerson, the Végh, the Tatrai, and the Takács, as well as, now, the Belcea. For me, the group to beat is the Takács on Decca, who play with an intensity and warmth unmatched by the others.
Intensity and understanding are exactly what I miss from the Belcea, who, as far as I'm concerned, merely play the notes, and I'm not thrilled by either of the violinists, who lack the tone to support Bartók's big moments. They have done some nice Schubert and Mozart, but they seem like they're struggling in the deep end of the pool here. Unless you want every complete set out there, there's almost no reason to buy this one.

S.G.S. (May 2008)