From Schubert to Webern – Compelling Performances from the Belcea Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Webern, Schubert, Brahms Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 1.3.2015 (GD)

Webern:   Five Movements Op. 5
Schubert: String Quartet in A minor D 804 ‘Rosamunde’
Brahms:   String Quartet in A minor Op.51 No.2


There was a brief announcement by one of the Wigmore ushers that the sequence of the advertised order of the recital had been changed. So instead of the Webern Op.5 being the first work on the programme it took its place as the second work to be played after the Schubert A minor Quartet. There is nothing at all unusual in these sort of changes, but when I heard the first movement of the Webern, directly after the wonderful Schubert Quartet, I think I know the reason for the programme change. So different and radical is Webern’s music that playing it first would have interfered with the aesthetics/appreciation of the Schubert; and ideally it needed an interval to ‘digest’ the Webern so to speak. Also, it allowed for closer hearing and perception of the contrast between this new paradigmatic work (in the true sense of that word) and one which roughly follows the classical sonata paradigm. To think Webern’s Opus 5 was composed in 1909 When most of the leading composers in Europe were following a much more conservative line,  basically sticking with the old system of hierarchical tonal/harmonic narratives, and contrasts between major and minor.

The ‘new’ music, initiated of course by Schoenberg, totally broke with late 19th/early 20th centuries fixation on gigantic forms, orchestras, which started to sound overblown, inflated. Listening to a work the Op. 5 is in a sense a kind aural/aesthetic cleansing, an ecology of the mind. Everything here is fantastically concentrated, not a trace of cholestoral and absolutely concentrated into minutes rather than hours. But when listening to the first movement of Op.5 with its; melodies traced through chromatic intervals ( minor seconds, major sevenths, minor ninths), harmonies tasted for the moment,rhythm measured by pulse rather than metre, infinitely varied colours (fortissimos struck with the wood of the bow, nasal sounds made by bowing near the bridge, chords in harmonics,  all these just in the opening bars of the first movement, one is still ( in 2015)   struck by the the’Shock of the new’, to use a cliché

The Belcea Quartet seemed in its element here miraculously playing the varying constellations of rhythmic innovation with total clarity. I have for a long time listened to the Emerson’s in this music, and they are in a certain sense inimitable, but the Belcea were just as precise with the added attraction  of a fraction more flexibility. Also they were just as effective in the second and fourth movements both played with mutes, where Webern is working through extremes of texture and dynamics and volume. How can one make a phrase on the second violin in the close of the  second movement sound barely audible ( Webern’s marking as ‘Kaum hörbar’).but  actually produce a  very ominous, almost  haunting sound-scape? Here in terms of dynamics, the string quartet sounds as varied in dynamic range as a large symphony orchestra. After the incredible diversity of the fifth movement, concentrated into such a short time and space ending, as it began, with a lingering phrase on two notes, it is not difficult  to see why it so influenced Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra Op.16, and his piano piece Op 11, No. 3.

Schubert’s A minor Quartet D 804 is the first in a trio of which came to be known as his three late Quartets, and it is arguably the most intimate of the trio. It is certainly the most perfectly poised and the most concentrated – a good choice here for any critical/historical comparison with the opening Webern work. Schubert had a great affection for the ‘Rosamunde’ theme which he deploys in the second movement, hence the name-tag. He also used the theme three years later in the Impromptu in B-flat. Schubert also incorporates a theme from one of his earliest songs Gretchen am Spinnrade – not a direct quotation, but a similarity in the opening second violin restless accompaniment figuration hovering around the mediant and underpinned by a repeated theme in cello and viola. Some commentators have compared this with the opening theme from Mozart’s great G minor Symphony K 550, which Schubert is known to have revered. This troubled opening initiates an exposition full of very subtle contrasts, first the major then juxtaposed into the minor.  Throughout the last three quartets Schubert constantly experiments in new tonal/harmonic constellations and quartet soundscapes; each quartet having its own mark of distinction. The A minor Quartet in this sense is especially notable for the way it departs from the usual sonata formula of sharp tonal/dynamic contrasts. In a most unorthodox way Schubert achieves the necessary contrast and variety by developing his themes’ ‘latent dramatic possibilities’, and this in the whole movement, not just the development section. It is these ‘latent dramatic possibilities’ that the Belcea’s understand so well, with a kind of underlying thematic reference which acts to create a mood of suspense and expectancy, moving from major to minor, with a myriad other tonal/harmonic juxtapositions, so that when the concise development arrives it sounds all the more sharp and trenchant. The dramatic and relentless coda here never sounded added or contrived, as it often does.  With the Belcea it emerged organically from the complex tonal/harmonic juxtapositions of the whole movement.

The Belcea’s gave a beautifully flowing rendition of the second ‘Rosamunde’ movement; a real Andante. All five rondo-like sections were phrased with great subtlety encompassing both the differences and overall unity of Schubert’s design. The dactylic rhythms, one of Schubert’s familiar fingerprints, wonderfully intoned the initial outline of the Allegretto in Betthoven’s Seventh Symphony without ever sounding like anyone but Schubert. The Menuetto Allegretto with its dark, brooding minor key inflections and contrasting Ländler- like trio, and the Finale with its ‘faint Hungarian flavour’ and its many unexpected silences and interruptions, were all played with total conviction and idiomatic empathy. In some of the more introspective and lyrical passages I would have welcomed a bit more of the poetry and elegance found in an ensemble like the Quatuor Mosaiques., but in their very distinct and unique way the Belcea’s are superb.

Much of Brahms’ chamber music, and especially the two quartets Op 51 deserve to be played more often than they are. They are both superbly rich and diverse works, making one wish that Brahms had gone on to write more string quartets. The Belcea tended to emphasise the more classical side of the A minor quartet with fairly brisk tempi for the opening Allegro non troppo and indeed throughout the whole work.The development section’s potently charged cross-rhythms, and rich viola sonorities were all allowed to speak, as it were, but always within an integrated classical frame. This brisk directness certainly paid off in the Andante moderato. The canonic recitative between violin and cello in the mid-section, so admired by Donald Tovey, gained in terms of clarity, although I did miss the movement’s mood of sustained opulence within a Bach-like canonic register. The Scherzo third movement with its ‘slow minuet’ style and polyphonic trio in duple time was refreshingly delivered, although at times I would have welcoimed slightly more contrast between trio and minuet tempo. The finale’s lively rondo came off splendidly. Its mood of exhilaration, tempered by minor key excursions, convincingly sustained right up to the terse, but affirmative coda.

Overall this was a most compelling and memorable recital.

Geoff Diggines

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