The Belcea String Quartet Explore the Viennese Chamber Music Tradition  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Berg and Brahms: The Belcea String Quartet [Corina Belcea & Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztiof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 4.11.2014 (CS)

Mozart: String Quartet in F K.590 (‘Prussian’)
Berg: Lyric Suite
Brahms: String Quartet in C minor Op.51 No.1


In this Wigmore Hall concert, the Belcea Quartet’s commanding delivery of the demanding programme elucidated the organic evolution of chamber music between the two Viennese ‘schools’: the Classicists – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – and the Modernists – Schoenberg, Webern and Berg – with Brahms, heard after the interval, providing a ‘stepping-stone’ and continuity from one era to the next.

The Belcea opened the concert with Mozart’s final string quartet, K.590 in F Major, playing with an expressive richness that looked forward to the impending Romanticism of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.  The opening phrases of the Allegro moderato were enhanced with a full vibrato, creating a sense of expansiveness which was sustained throughout the movement, although this did not disturb the bright buoyancy of the busy interchanges or the glistening elegance of first violinist Corina Belcea’s pure E-string melodies.  However, while in general the cohesion between the players was secure, there were some disagreements of tempo, the freedom of the expression occasionally marring the ensemble.

The dark timbres of the Andante were suggestive and rich.  I was impressed both by the technical distinction shown in the delineation of different textures and figurations – Krzysztof Chorzelski’s rapid viola string crossings were perfectly balanced and even – and the attentiveness to dynamic variation, especially the subtle nuances applied in the piano passages.  Sforzandi were carefully placed, without undue hardness of sound.  I found the Menuetto a little too ‘theatrical’, with dramatic surges and emphatic forte interjections contrasting forcefully with the grace of the quieter episodes.  The final Allegro was extremely fast, perhaps too fast, as some of the rapid passagework lacked crisp definition and, again, at times security of ensemble was sacrificed for emotive effect.  But there was delicacy here too, particularly in the wry shaping of the movement’s quiet ending.

If the whirlwind finale of Mozart’s last quartet presents considerable technical challenges, then Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite makes enormous demands on its performers, requiring both intimate lyricism and extrovert virtuosity.  The Belcea Quartet were untroubled by such burdens and were more than attuned to both extremes of sentiment; they captured a wealth of emotions and moods as they articulated Berg’s elusive ‘narrative’.  (Long-considered to ‘encode’ autobiographical elements, after the composer’s death a score of the work was discovered which contained Berg’s own annotations, revealing the score to be a musical record of the composer’s ill-fated affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin.)

The full-bodied tone of the opening Allegretto giovale signalled the intensity of the journey ahead.  Each player was an equal voice in a vigorous conversation, the various competing strands bound in a coherent unity of intent.  The rhythmic spontaneity was captured robustly, but the tone was always pleasing however vigorous or concentrated the debate.  The Andante amoroso began gently, an expressive interplay of small gestures which quietly evolved and retreated, but these soon acquired a propulsive energy and developed into a wild dance.  Tremolos shimmered tightly and the pizzicato motifs had elasticity, creating impetus and life.  The shadowy sound world of the Allegro misterioso, with its ghostly col legno bowing, gave way to a warmer normale, before the mercurial Trio estatico, in which the Belcea raced through the rapid passagework with exuberance and freedom.  Antoine Lederlin’s quiet but focused cello-playing provided sure support in the Adagio appassionato, having poise and presence even during the most reticent passages.

The fifth movement, Presto delirando – Tenebroso, once again demonstrated the Belcea’s technical mastery; the sul tasto whispers of the funereal Tenebroso were laden with poignant grief, but the Quartet built rhythmically into an aggressive conclusion, punctuated by Lederlin’s spirited, rapid pizzicati.  Second violinist Axel Schacher made his solo sing beautifully in the final Largo Desolato, with Chorzelski having the final, deeply sensitive utterance.

Having travelled discerningly through Berg’s diverse expressive palette, in Brahms’s String Quartet in C minor Op. 51 No.1 the Belcea Quartet found a similar range of emotional variety.  The sweeping opening phrases of the Allegro were heroic of temperament, while the first violin’s unhurried falling answering motif immediately introduced the drama of contrast.  After the vigorous exchanges of the exposition, the brief development section was lyrical and warm; an agitated coda closed with a beautiful, long-held chord.  The Romanze: Poco adagio unfolded melodiously, but the Belcea also intimated a drama beneath the smooth surface.  The third movement, Allegretto molto moderato e comodo, had great charm as the countermelodies interwove with simplicity and joy.  In the trio section, Schacher’s perfectly controlled bariolage, together with the faster tempo, created lightness of spirit.  The final Allegro took us back to the rich abundance of the opening movement, the Belcea moving flexibly from one mood to another as the melodies sang in a legato continuum.  This was very fine playing and engaging musicianship.

Claire Seymour

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