United States Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert: Belcea Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 17.10.2014 (BJ)
Mozart: Quartet in F major, K. 590
Beethoven: Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3
Schubert: Quartet in A minor, D. 804
Founded twenty years ago, and constituting a virtual tour of Europe all by itself, the London-based Belcea Quartet has a Romanian first violinist, Polish violist, and French second violinist and cellist, who inaugurated the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s seventeen-quartet-strong season in superb style. Tackling three masterpieces from the very core of the quartet repertoire, they showed themselves to be as comprehensively up to that challenge as any of the perhaps more widely celebrated groups to follow them in the coming months are likely to be.
From the very first measures of Mozart’s F-major Quartet, third of the three he wrote in response to a commission from King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, I was struck by the sheer sense of freedom about their playing. That is not to suggest that there was any want of accuracy in their reading of their parts. It betokens simply a feeling of joyous exploration in their approach. Their dynamic range, too, was remarkable, from almost volcanic and masterfully tuned triple stops to the subtle gradations of tone that enhanced their soft playing.
Corina Belcea shaped the first-violin line with impressive authority and glistening tone, and each of her three colleagues provided worthy support. Second violinist Axel Schacher made the most of his relatively few opportunities to shine, violist Krzysztof Chorzelski turned his phrases with notable wit and musical insight, and the overall sound benefitted from Antoine Lederlin’s finely nuanced cello-playing, not only firm and resonant in forte, but never losing presence even in a seemingly whispered pianissimo.
Despite its published listing as No. 3, the D-major Quartet from Beethoven’s Opus 18 was actually the composer’s first work in the genre, just as K. 590 was Mozart’s last. The Belceans wisely made no attempt to invest it with more profound qualities than it possesses, but were content just to play it beautifully. The Schubert, after intermission, offered deeper rewards for the listener: all four movements were accorded their full measure of both lyricism and drama, and the third, in particular, profited from Lederlin’s compelling projection of the cello phrases that are the springboard of this powerfully emotional dance movement.
My only complaint in the whole evening—sorry, but a critic’s responsibility is to composers as well as to performers and readers—was the group’s parsimony over repeats. Why do so many performers think they understand musical form better than Mozart did? The first movement of K. 590 is one of his broadest, most expansive quartet movements, and failing to observe his instruction to repeat the exposition had the effect of miniaturizing it to some degree. Perhaps I should have minded the omission less if the playing had not been so rivetingly good.