Friday, 2 December 2011

Review of the Belcea Quartet

Last night (December 1st) at the Wigmore Hall saw the Belcea Quartet perform the second in their cycle of concerts covering the complete Beethoven Quartets, a serious and impressive exercise which will be concluded with a set of live recordings. Thursday's concert was recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Radio 3. The quartet are structuring their concerts by playing an early, a middle and a late quartet so that last night we heard the String Quartet in B flat Opus 18 no. 6 from 1798-1800, the String Quartet in F minor Opus 95 'Serioso' from 1810 and the String Quartet in E flat Opus 127 from 1825-26.

The opening movement of Opus 18 no.6 is surprisingly conventional but came over as nicely playful with much question and answer between the individual voices. Under Corina Belcea's firm leadership the Belcea Quartet gave the movement some firm, dark playing and brought out the depths of even the simpler passages. A beautifully considered account of the second movement, highlighted its simple elegance but added moments of mystery. In the scherzo Beethoven's unsettling, irregular rhythms were to the fore, but conventionality did break out. Only to be swept away by the amazing slow introduction to the final movement, La Malinconia. The quartet's hushed, bleached tones alternated with more dramatic interjections, pregnant with meaning. But this introduction led, slightly bathetically, to one of Beethoven's country dances. Though the group's way with it made Beethoven's humour a little scary.

The quartet's sound quality is focussed on Corina Belcea's sweet but incisive tones. The group favours a wide range of dynamics, imbuing even the simplest of passages with an intensely felt, dramatic quality.

The group made much of the opus 95 quartet's striking opening movement, highlighting the dramatic contrasts and the music's startling turns and diversions. The players' dark, thick tones provided high intensity moments, which were strongly felt and often beautiful. We had travelled a long way from the simple question and answer of the first quartet's opening. Though the second movement is marked Allegretto, the quartet hinted at something not quite comfortable about the music, their haunting playing catching elements of another world. This movement leads directly into the dramatic opening of the scherzo, with Beethoven echoing the music of the quartet's first movement. The serene trio appears twice and contrasted with the high octane, high tension playing of the scherzo itself. Finally there was the dark and agitated final movement, but one in which the group highlighted the lyric elements; all ending with Beethoven's surprisingly up beat coda.

After the interval the group played Beethoven's Opus 127 quartet, the first of a group written for Prince Galitzin. In the work's opening movement the initial dramatic gesture was imbued with surprising delicacy and warmth, for the rest of the movement lyrical tenderness alternated with strenuousness until the surprisingly abrupt ending. The long second movement is Beethoven's favourite variation form with a theme of great beauty which is initially shared by the violin and cello. The group's hushed, magical playing at the opening was led to a long movement of quiet intensity, sustained over the full length, a remarkably achievement. For the scherzo, the dramatic contrasts were highlighted, emphasizing that this scherzo is a long way from a joke, with a fast scurrying minor trio whose false return at the end made the conclusion of the movement rather sinister. The last movements dramatic opening had its dramatic rhetoric offset by sweetness. But the movement had a certain restlessness until the magical moment, magically played, when the coda launches into the major and the tempo slows to allow the players to ethereally scurry over the music.

This was an impressive concert, serious in intention and big on achievement. The audience in the packed Wigmore Hall was rightly enthusiastic. And we have more to come!

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