- String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Sz. 40, BB 52 (Op. 7)
- String Quartet No. 3 in C sharp major, Sz. 85, BB 93
- String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110
- String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17)
- String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95
- String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119
In this 2008 EMI Classics release, the Belcea Quartet presents Béla Bartók's six string quartets with phenomenal accuracy and assured style, though this British-based ensemble falls short in expression and fails to plumb the depths of these landmarks of twentieth century chamber music. The cycle makes extreme demands on a virtuoso string quartet's technique and experience, and these fine musicians obviously have the chops to handle the trickiest rhythms and the knottiest contrapuntal interchanges, and they possess a thorough understanding of Bartók's highly varied effects, moods, and musical allusions. Whether conveying the post-Romantic richness of the "String Quartets No. 1" and "No. 2," the expressionistic tensions of "No. 3" and "No. 4," or the arch neo-classicism of "No. 5" and "No. 6," the Belcea Quartet is quite aware of the developments in Bartók's oeuvre and creates credible representations of his changing styles. Yet at the emotional core, the group holds back as if on the brink of the abyss, and the passion, violence, and pathos of these brooding masterpieces are only partly suggested, never wholeheartedly embraced. If these quartets are primarily viewed as intellectual in nature, one may consider the performances to be sufficiently clear eyed and intelligent, with a level of poise and control that works rather well. Yet if the quartets are regarded as the profoundest expressions of Bartók's spirit or musical identity, then the Belcea's performances are not as inspired or penetrating as they need to be and are insufficiently compelling to rank with the greatest recordings.