Ligeti Provides the Highlight of the Belcea Quartet’s Berlin Recital

17/10/2017

Haydn, Ligeti, and Dvořák: Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 14.10.2017. (MB)

Haydn – String Quartet in D major, op.20 no.4, Hob. III:34

Ligeti – String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’

Dvořák – String Quartet no.12 in F major, op.96, ‘American’

The Pierre Boulez Saal’s new chamber music season opened with a concert from the Belcea Quartet. This was for me, I am afraid, something of a case of swings and roundabouts, although I had the distinct impression that my reservations were not shared by the audience at large. At any rate, if it was only really the performance of Ligeti’s First String Quartet that truly convinced me; to hear a fine Ligeti performance is always worth the effort. And more than that, it was lovely to be back in Berlin’s wonderful salle modulable.

I was really rather surprised by the Quartet’s performance of Haydn’s op.20 no.4. This was not a group I had thought of as having been involved in ‘authenticity’, but the performance proved to be very low on vibrato, often without any at all, and generally quite abrasive in style. The very opening of the first movement worked rather well in that sense, I thought: dark and exploratory, almost as if looking forward to late Haydn. However, much of the rest I found too overtly ‘rhetorical’, or better, rhetorical at the expense of a longer line. (Others will clearly have thought differently.) There was much to admire in that, not least the very different ‘characters’ of particular figures, especially as allied to different note values. But overall, I found the performance muted and somewhat restricted in expressive terms. Nevertheless, the second movement sounded beautifully sad, and there was something to be said for the boisterous rusticity of the ‘Menuet alla Zingarese’ and the strong contrast of its trio. Moreover, the finale came off best of all, at least for me: more properly integrative than any other. The complexity of its material certainly came across too. If only that could have been read back, to a certain extent, into the patchier first movement.

Ligeti’s First Quartet was played with a very different, undeniably ‘modern’, if not especially ‘modernist’, tone. It owes much, of course, to Bartók, as we would proceed to hear; but at the beginning, it was Berg and Schoenberg who came at least as strongly to mind in the tortured hyper-Romanticism of the string lines and their paths. This may or may not be ‘mature’ Ligeti; the composer said not. It nevertheless proved anything but predictable, and offered a recognisable anarchism and attendant humour. This was music and performance ‘on the cusp’ in various ways, almost as if it were on the verge of turning into ‘real’ or ‘more real’ Ligeti. It was highly wrought, spellbinding drama, whether overtly violent or sweetly sensuous. Weird remnants of tonality – yes, it is they that are weird here – duly disconcerted, as did that persistent, if not constant, sense of the cusp.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet opened in impressive, but perhaps somewhat fussy, fashion, the variety of articulation threatening to overwhelm, as in the Haydn, a sense of longer line. I very much had the sense that this was a reading that had been rethought, but which had perhaps not quite ‘bedded down’: better that, though, than the merely routine. Formal propulsion was also sometimes missing – in that sense, it would be, without line – and perhaps especially in the first movement. The slow movement sounded more strongly founded, rhythmically and harmonically, and emerged much stronger for it. All solos and duets were beautifully taken; if it were, perhaps, Antoine Lederlin’s cello solos that lodged themselves most deeply in the memory, that is probably more a consequence of Dvořák’s writing than anything else. The third and fourth movements again proved somewhat fussy, although I do not wish to exaggerate. It would be interesting to hear the Belcea Quartet again in this music, perhaps in a year’s time, it only to see whether my suspicions were at all well founded.

Mark Berry

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