Thursday, 1 December 2011

Belcea Quartet - Beethoven, 1 December 2011

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.6 in B-flat major, op.18 no.6
String Quartet no.11 in F minor, op.95, ‘Quartett Serioso’
String Quartet no.12 in E-flat major, op.127

Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (violoncello)


The second concert in the Belcea Quartet’s Wigmore Hall Beethoven cycle threw down the gauntlet for subsequent instalments. To hear three such different quartets from different periods of the composer’s career offered variety, to be sure, but the connections one could make – and which, of course, the players, could and did make – were perhaps still more striking.

There have been a good few performances from the op.18 set in which I have felt a little disappointed, but not here. The Belcea enthralled not only in the lively, Haydnesque opening movement, with a touch of Mozart here and there, but also in subsequent intimations of what we have come to consider ‘late Beethoven’. That first movement set up a pattern not only for this quartet but for the recital as a whole, with its individual characterisation of first and second subjects bringing us not so very far from the Mozartian world of the opera house. It was graceful indeed; all I missed was a touch of Beethovenian gruffness – but then, I did not really miss it. The ‘Adagio ma non troppo’ sounded just as Beethoven marked it: a trickier task than it might sound. One might well have added ‘grazioso’ to the description too; in its easy flow, the music looked forward to the slow movement of the ‘Spring’ Sonata, arguably even to the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Yet the quiet drama of the theme’s development was the thing, vibrato varied accordingly – and convincingly. The whirlwind dislocations of the scherzo and trio, on the other hand, certainly peered forward to the ‘late’ composer, a proper contrast before the desolate Mozartian – even Wagnerian – music-drama of the introduction to the finale. Haydn then returned to view, to put a smile back on our faces, though not irreversibly, for the return of the introductory material once again pointed to the future, in this performance both rarefied and terrifying.

The first movement of the extraordinary ‘Quartett serioso’ moved us from intimations of ‘lateness’ to what seemed to be the real thing – despite the work’s chronological placing. Several times, I was put in mind of the Eighth Symphony, another work that stands upon the cusp. The Belcea players, greatly to their credit and greatly to the performance’s benefit, were not afraid to sound ugly; yet there was also plenty of room – insofar as there is room at all, in this world of breathtaking, almost Webern-like concision – for the sweetest lyricism, albeit always foreshortened, as Beethoven demands. One truly felt as well as observed Beethoven’s concision and its underlying anger. The ‘Allegretto ma non troppo’ received excellent characterisation throughout, ranging from more than a hint of that neo-Classicism that haunts the Eighth Symphony to near-operatic desperation. All was held together by Beethoven, but also of course by the performers. The scherzo and finale were unsparing, in the best sense, nervous intensity emerging from within, without a single break in the guiding thread.

Cross-fertilisation ensured that the first movement of op.127 sounded close to middle-period Beethoven in its forthrightness, the richness of Corina Belcea’s first violin tone certainly helping in that respect. Yet motivic concision retained the connection with the ‘lateness’ of op.95, alongside and in dialectic relationship with an almost ‘traditional’ expansiveness, for which consider other E-flat major works such as the Fifth Piano Concerto and Haydn’s late piano sonata. The slow movement, by contrast and by intensification, sounded ineffably ‘late’, its theme rapt in Gluckian ‘noble simplicity’, yet so much sweeter, both compositionally and instrumentally, and of course so much more developmental. The array of tonal qualities presented by the players almost made one experience the movement as akin to a Mahler symphony, a whole world in itself. Again, line was maintained throughout: inevitable, yet not without surprises. The motivic construction of the scherzo was lain out, for all its protean transformations, with exemplary clarity and, just as important, with dramatic meaning. If the trio exhibited a degree of savage wildness, it always knew – and the Belcea Quartet always knew – where it was going. In retrospect, it seemed but a stormy interlude, though it could not have been more real at the time. As for the ‘finale problem’ faced by every sonata-form composer since Mozart and Haydn, one was tempted to ask, ‘what problem?’ There was a struggle, as there must be, but continued alertness to the twin, dialectically-related demands of character and form made perfect dramatic sense. String quality was variegated, yet never for variegation’s sake, just like Beethoven’s writing itself. And then, to conclude, a touch more Haydn.

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