The Belcea Quartet Plays Beethoven with Mixed Results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven: Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)). Wigmore Hall, London, 14.5.2012 (MB)

String Quartet no.4 in C minor, op.18 no.4
String Quartet no.16 in F major, op.135
String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’

In the light of the high standards of previous instalments of the Belcea Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (enabled by a bequest from long-standing Wigmore Hall audience member, Mrs Kate Goetz), this concert somewhat disappointed. There were good things in it, but it was perhaps only the performance of the early op.18 no.4 quartet that really convinced as a whole. Its first movement benefited from a splendid contrast between the first subject’s febrile – I was almost tempted to say ‘highly strung’ – tension and the second group’s cultivated, Haydnesque give and take. Tension was maintained throughout, Beethoven really taken by the scruff of his neck. And the surprise – echt-Beethovenian – of the coda fully registered. The second movement was nicely turned, perhaps surprisingly delicate, but winningly so, even though I did not quite feel that the players succeeded in preventing it from outstaying its welcome. At any rate, the renewal of tension in the tightly-knit minuet, both in terms of work and performance, was palpable. The principal theme of the finale was frenetic, but not inappropriately so, rather akin to Mendelssohn with added grit. A beautiful, almost Mozartian contrast in terms of major-mode material provided relief, albeit briefly so.

Beethoven’s final quartet, op.135, opened as it should, as if the argument had been going on for some time. One certainly felt that this was an entirely different world from that of op.18 no.4 The dialectic was well managed, indeed dramatically handled; fragmentation was often threatened yet line was maintained, with difficulty (as it should be). Harmonic strangeness still registered, as did radical concision of form. Much the same could be said of the second movement. Though I felt the opening was slightly under-played, a whirling vortex of potential disintegration was soon apparent, dance threatening to extend out of control, rather along the lines of Don Giovanni. The slow movement, however, disappointed. Its opening – and not just the opening – proved fuzzy. Much of the movement’s course seemed observed rather than immanent, sublimity missing or at least intermittent. This is hardly grand, public music, but nevertheless communication of its soul seemed lacking. It also seemed a little rushed. Strangeness and tension again registered in the finale. And yet, despite a battle between the angry and the playful, I missed a sense of the metaphysical such as would be conveyed in outstanding performances of this work, or indeed of late Beethoven in general.

The first ‘Razumovsky’ quartet again opened intriguingly, in medias res. Its first movement was on the swift side, though not unreasonably so. It might, however, have relaxed a little for the second subject. Antoine Lederlin’s cello playing was an especial pleasure: suave and well-rounded. Dramatic projection of the development’s counterpoint was especially noteworthy from all concerned. The second movement progressed fluently, yet only intermittently did the performance dig beneath the surface. When let off the leash, the players permitted themselves some splendidly abandoned playing; one longed for more of that. The opening couple of bars of the slow movement harked back to their counterparts in op.135, suggesting haziness to be an interpretative strategy rather than a mishap. At any rate, I remained unconvinced, though the music soon came into focus. Nevertheless, this really lacked the feeling of breadth a Beethoven slow movement demands, whether it be part of a quartet, a piano sonata, or a symphony. It simply felt hasty, which is not solely, or even primarily, a matter of tempo. There was also something of a wiry edge to string tone at times. The finale was frenetic. Though not inflexible, it might have breathed more easily. It benefited, however, from a good sense of harmonic exploration.

Mark Berry