Monday 12 October 2015

Belcea Quartet in Webern, Mozart and Schubert

The Belcea Quartet
The Belcea Quartet
Mozart, Webern, Schubert; Belcea Quartet, Valentin Erban; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 11 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Intense and intelligent music making in three contrasting works.

As part of their 20th anniversary celebrations the Belcea Quartet's concert at the Wigmore Hall on 11 October 2015 featured three highly contrasting chamber works. The centrepiece of the evening was Webern's highly compressed Five Movement, Op.5 and surrounding it was the rather more expansive Mozart String Quartet in C K465 'Dissonance' and Schubert's String Quintet in C D965 with cellist Valentin Erben.

Valentin Erben
Valentin Erben
The Belcea Quartet was formed at the Royal College of Music in 1994, and violinist Corina Belcea and violist Kryzstof Chorzelski are the surviving founding members, with violinist Axel Schacher and cellist Antoine Lederlin in the current line up. Though based in the UK, the quartet is very international as Belcea is Romanian, Chorzelski is Polish whilst Schacher and Lederlin are French. For the Schubert quintet they were joined by veteran cellist Valentin Erben who was co-founder of the Alban Berg quartet, an ensemble which has in fact coached the Belcea Quartet.

Mozart's Dissonance Quartet is the last of his six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Written in 1785 the quartet gets its name because of the remarkable slow introduction to the first movement which is full of harmonic instability.This started from nothing, with a fine aetherial sound from the quartet but still with a lovely edge to the tone. They achieve maximum intensity with the remarkable dissonances but with a lovely linearity to the performance. The quartet created a very unified, concentrated sound world. In the Allegro proper, there was a nice lightness to the articulation combined with strength of tone. This was a lively, yet serious discussion between friends, intense, civilised and controlled.

The Andante cantabile was again quiet and controlled, with a lovely fine-grained tone. A lovely movement, though first violin led it was remarkably unified in the way the textures involved all four players. The Menuetto brought a strong degree of contrast between the motifs and it seemed more a scherzo than minuet, with a rather impulsive and intense minor key trio. The Allegro molto finale was refined and elegant with highly contrasting darking moments. Taken at quite a lick, there was a lightness and crispness to the articulation.

Webern's Five movements op.5 were written in 1909 and mark the beginning of his highly concentrated style. Each movement is short and each tiny gesture must count, whilst dynamics often vary from quiet to very quiet. There was a strong unanimity of purpose to the quartet's performance, allied to great technical control with the intense small gestures meaning a lot. We could admire the way Webern changed the textures on a pinpoint. After the first movement, which is the longest of the five, the Sehr langsam was quiet, intense and bleak. With variations of quiet in the dynamics, the quartet gave us playing which really drew you in. I felt it was a shame that the middle three movements could not have been played without a break. The tiny third movement, Sehr bewegt was hard edged, nervous and skittering. The fourth movement, again Sehr langsam was quiet and eerie, with some magical textures. The final movement, In zarter Bewegung was lyrically expressionist, full of sighs and whispers. Throughout the quartet gave a clear sense of communal control and purpose, the result was to give us a modern version of the highly wrought working out of structure that we appreciated in the Mozart.

After the interval, Schubert's quintet with two cellos which dates from the last year of his life. Schubert takes advantage of the two cellos to create a number of lovely moments with soaring melodies in the first cello, with the bass taken by the second. Performances can indulge in a highly romantic style for these, but the virtue of the performance from the Belcea Quartet and Valentin Erban was the sense of poise and restraint, highlighting the classical roots of Schubert's inspiration. As a result, there were some real spine-tingling moments in this performance.

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo started with fine-grained tone and lovely control, with the great sense of the various voices emerging from the texture and receding. This was underpinned by a lively yet tight rhythm combined with crisp attack and a building sense of excitement leading to the lovely second subject. This was elegant, with very transparent textures. The development was all accents and strenuousness, but this evaporated for the recapitulation. Throughout there was a sense of the players responding to the music, creating variations of texture. The opening of the Adagio was notable for the quiet and sense of control, giving a lovely clarity of texture and magical suspension of time. The vigorous middle section was in violent contrast both in texture and emotion, and then the mood swung back for the poised and transparent return of the opening material in elaborated form. The Scherzo was not as fast as some performances, but the combination of lyricism and strong accents was very vivid, full of character and excitement. The trio brought an amazing change in tone, with a sense of warmth and intense, sustained sound. The finale was full of character, with strong rhythms and attack, and a great sense of colour. The first episode brought back lightness and transparency, whilst the third episode brought back a sense of the opening movement.

This was an evening of intense and intelligent music making, combining the virtues of control and restraint, with technical skill and sense of character. The players in the quartet seemed to share a common sense of purpose, one shared by Valentin Erban in the quintet. The performances drew rightly strong appreciation from the packed audience.

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