Belcea Quartet Display Concentration and Energy in Late Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London 3.16.2012 (GD)

String Quartet in A major Op.18 No.5
String Quartet in B flat Op.130 with Grosse Fuge Op.133

The Belcea Quartet’s practice of preceding one of the late quartets with Beethoven’s earliest Op. 18 Quartets is informative in registering the huge extent of progress the composer had made from these early works to his last works in quartet form.

The Op. 18 quartets are distinctive in their own right. Although they follow the basic form of the quartets of Haydn and Mozart, they are already advancing ahead in terms of more daring dynamics, sharp contrasts, and expressive range. This is not to say that they are ‘superior’ to say one of Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ Quartet’s, which remain unique in terms of compositional finesse, but that they are initiating new ‘ground’ in the classical quartet legacy.

Op. 18 No.5 is the most Mozartian, more in its form and textual register than anything to do with its tonal or expressive effects. And like Mozart’s Quartet K 464, also in A major, it is the only one in the set of six to place the ‘minuet’ as the second movement. It is also worth mentioning here that Beethoven had and retained a special admiration for Mozart’s K464 saying of it , ‘Now that I call a work.’. The Belcea gave a rendition that was totally in keeping with Beethoven’s economy and new levels of experimentation. I am thinking particularly here of the high tessitura of the first violin in the first movement exposition, here superbly contoured and balanced/integrated by Corina Belcea with the other quartet parts. The contrast between the intimacy of the minuet and the the dominant A trio with its melodious opulence was well articulated, as was the ‘andante cantabile’ third movement in the form of five variations in the D tonal register. The final ‘Allegro’ found the Belcea on top form with their crisp and rhytyhmically agile articulation of the seemingly simple folk song elements magnificently contrasted with the eloquent, almost Mozartian energy of the main allegro.And the coda, with its brief chordal moment of tranquility, rounded off a truly compelling performance, fully reflecting the brilliance and invention of Beethoven’s early quartet output.

Right from the opening of Op. 130, with its G flat upward chromatic scales in hushed, staccato octaves, we are transported into quite different musical domain, compared with the world of the Op.18 set. Here everything was perfectly gradated and articulated, although I did miss that tone of sotto voce mystery and drama brought to this introduction by past renditions from the Vegh and Talich Quartets, and more recently the Takacs Quartet. On several occasions I had the sense that the Belcea excelled more in the rhythmically dynamic, extrovert sections than than in the more reflective and introverted music. Thus the first movement’s main Allegro with its flourishing cascades of semiquavers incorporating a rising fourth was superbly executed, rhythmically sharp with seemingly boundless energy. The amazingly succinct development section, with its sense of fragmented themes woven together and the use of imitative instrumental relay, had plenty of expectant intensity and movement, but at times again I missed that aura of mystery with the hint of tonal ambiguity so magically realised by the Vegh, Talich quartets, and the Quartetto Italiano. The fantastical, almost grotesque second movement ‘Presto’ was delivered with a meticulous sharpness and rhythmic accuracy which I can’t imagine being matched. Here the juxtaposition of B flat minor with the home tonic of the scherzo-like trio in the 6/4 metre conjures up an almost gnomic mood, well realised tonight. The third movement Andante in D flat, with its playful lilt and elaborate decorative writing four all four instruments with beautifully contrasted pizzicato and arco alternations was played just as written with an ensemble clarity rarely heard. The same clarity and lucidity applied to the fourth movement with its Alla danza tedesco (in the style of a German dance) inflections. The music just seemed to play itself with a minimum of interpretive intervention. The quick changes in register and sudden dynamic contrasts sounded quite spontaneous with superb intrumental balance and tonal clarity. This was quartet playing of the highest standard.

The E flat fifth movement is short and in ternary form. Beethoven entitled it ‘Cavatina’ (basically a simple aria). But Beethoven’s creation is anything but ‘simple’. And it is an extremely difficult piece for any quartet to perform, not just in a technical sense, but in the sense of negotiating the ‘Adagio molto expressivo’ asked for in the score. It might be more helpful to read Beethoven’s ‘Cavatina’ as denoting a fairly consistent lyricism throughout the movement. Again, from a technical perspective, the Belcea excelled. Here was a literal rendition of the score. It was all very engaging, although I would have preferred a slighty slower tempo, but I just missed that sense of deep expressive lyricism found, for instance, in the wonderful old 1941 Busch Quartet’s recording. However, this is not really a fair comparison; the Belcea’s are playing Beethoven in a contemporary context where too much expression is generally avoided. Towards the movement’s coda Corina Belcea played those fragmented recitatives ( a kind of broken melody/symmetry) with compelling expressive insight. I am not sure that the ‘beklemmt’ instruction (a sense of oppression, unease) Beethoven asks for here was quite achieved tonight. but it is arguable that not even the greatest performances quite manage this. In music of this ‘depth’ of expression there is no such thing as an ultimate, or perfect performance, but the Belcea’s in their own way came very close to this.

The Grosse Fuge, which Tovey called ‘incomparably the most gigantic fugue in existence’. has always, from its first full version performance in April 1827 just after Beethoven’s death, presented something of a problem. It was initially thought just too difficult to play and its massive expanse was (and still is by some) considered disproportionate to the quartet’s quasi divertimento form. But today in our more completist culture it is more fashionable to play the Grosse Fuge as the quartet’s finale and also in some performances the shorter, more playful and direct alternative movement Beethoven wrote, his last composition. Beethoven gave a separate opus number to the Grosse Fuge. The Belcea were in their element here. What amazing sustained energy and concentration they have! The long passages of fortissimo complex contrapuntal writing were delivered with consumate accuracy and in these sequences of ‘stormy energy’, despite the technical acumen of the playing, I still had the sense of struggle and that even this quartet were finding an element of challenge in this extraordinary music. This is totally in keeping for a work of almost monstrous complexity and difficulty. In this performance the sudden plunge into G flat, after the first lyrical section initiating a new fugal theme based on the works opening chords, was made to register a complete dramatic change of mood and drama. Interestingly this same key G flat has an important role in the first movement of Op 130. This and many other transitions and earlier interconnecting thematic references were made to register with total conviction. One of the many reasons which made this performance so memorable.

One would have thought that after playing this most massive and complex work with such conviction, the players would have welcomed a rest. But no, they gave as an encore the second movement ‘Molto adagio’ of the Op.59 Quartet No. 2, the second of the three so-called Rasumovsky Quartets. Although they gave a sensitive and suitably sustained rendition, I, for one, would have been content for the concert to end with the Grosse Fuge. I have no objections to encores, but what can really come after that? My level of musical tuning and concentration was just not ready for another quite long minor key adagio, lasting well over ten minutes. If the Belcea’s had to play an encore why could they have not played Beethoven’s most enjoyable alternative movement to the Grosse Fuge? But this is my own personal response and despite some reservations, inevitable in such unique music, this was a marvellous concert.

Geoff Diggines.