A Superb Opening for the String Quartet Season (bis!)

21/10/2016

Schubert, Shostakovich: Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea & Axel Schacher [violins], Krzysztof Chorzelski [viola], Antoine Lederlin [cello], Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 17.10.2016. (BJ)

Schubert –String Quartet in E flat major D.87

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.8 Op.110

Schubert –String Quartet in G major D.887

If the headline looks familiar, that is because it simply repeats what I said about the Belcea Quartet’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert exactly two years earlier. After this season’s return visit, I see no reason to modify my view that this now 22-year-old ensemble is one of the very finest in the present community of richly gifted string quartets.

The group’s playing is every bit as artistically perceptive and technically polished as it was before. Corina Belcea is a true leader, fearlessly uncompromising in her attack on the more forceful passages in the music at hand, sweetly lyrical in more intimate moments, and close to 100 per cent accurate in intonation. The control of intonation is, indeed, a central element in the Belceas’ quality: combined with an eloquent range of contrasting vibratos, it achieves a wonderfully polychromatic texture that reveals previously unsuspected facets even in music that one may think one already knew perfectly well.

The performance of Schubert’s E-flat-major String Quartet was a case in point. I’ve always admired it as a minor masterpiece, with a formal sophistication and poised charm remarkable in the work of a composer no older than 16. In the Belcea Quartet’s hands, the telling contributions of Messrs Schacher, Chorzelski, and Lederlin achieved a variety of color and texture that made the work seem by no means minor. From the rhythmically ingenious design of the opening theme onward, by way of the hurtling rapidity of the scherzo and the rapt musings of the Adagio, to the finely judged forward motion of the finale, every aspect of the young Schubert’s precocious mastery was cogently realized.

Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet was done with a similar expressive command, the fierceness of the Allegro molto second movement thrillingly offsetting the brooding intensity of the rest of this profoundly introverted music. And then, after intermission, Schubert’s last and greatest string quartet received a performance of breathtaking boldness and depth, grippingly mysterious in the first movement’s tonal and textural explorations, and vividly conveying all the varied inspirations that follow, including the heart-easing warmth of the third movement’s trio section. As a generous encore, a movement from Shostakovich’s Third Quartet neatly completed the evening’s design.

Just as two years ago, I again regretted that these superb musicians are unconvinced about the importance of observing composer-mandated repeats. But superb they are nevertheless, and the evening under review set a high benchmark for the ensembles that will follow them during the season to measure up to.

Bernard Jacobson

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