The string quartet repertory is so demanding to play that fans of the genre cling to rare historical favorites on CD who manage to get it just right. Mutual dependence and independence, statements from both the individual and group that convey a balanced message are extremely difficult to achieve. Sometimes a strenuous, heavy-handed group wins critical praise, perhaps because they always sound the same, no matter what music they play. Differentiating the styles and personalities of various composers so that Ravel does not sound like Debussy, let alone Brahms, is a rare skill. Whence the deserved cult-like status of historical ensembles like the Busch Quartet; Budapest String Quartet; Flonzaley Quartet; and Calvet Quartet, who were able to enter different musical worlds adeptly.
There are a few veteran ensembles today, like the Panocha Quartet and Wihan Quartet who match this precedent with supple, fleet, yet expressive artistry, but they are scarce. Which makes it all the more surprising to see a flurry of new quartets with young performers who play exceptionally well, as if decades of coaching by older ensemble players at music conservatories worldwide finally bore fruit.
The Daedalus string quartet, formed in 2000, is named after the mythical Greek inventor who fashioned wings that allowed him to fly. Their debut CD on Bridge Records of works by Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Ravel is joyously expressive. In Greek, “Daidalos” means “cunning worker” and given the skilled efforts required for this level of mastery, one might assume other young quartets would crash and burn just as Daedalus’s son Icarus did, for flying too close to the sun. Instead they excel, like Britain’s Belcea Quartet, which, despite its English pedigree, is anchored by two fiery East European virtuosos, Romanian-born first violin Corina Belcea and Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski. Whether playing works by Schubert or Britten on EMI Classics, the Belceas are passionately idiomatic performers.