The Belcea Quartet Continue Their Twentieth Anniversary Celebrations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Webern, Schubert: Belcea Quartet, Valentin Erben (cello), Wigmore Hall, London, 11.10. 2015 (RB)

Mozart – String Quartet in C K465 ‘Dissonance’
Webern – Five Movements Op 5
Schubert – String Quintet in C D956

In this concert of masterpieces from the First and Second Viennese Schools, the Belcea Quartet was joined by one of the co-founders of the Alban Berg Quartet, Valentin Erben.  The concert formed part of a series of events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Belcea Quartet.

The concert opened with Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet which was the final work in a set of six quartets which the composer wrote in 1785 and dedicated to Haydn. The slow introduction to the work with its striking dissonances caused some consternation among Mozart’s contemporaries although Beethoven’s third Razumovsky Quartet clearly owes a debt to the work.  The Belcea Quartet sustained the harmonic drift and probing dissonances of this famous opening very well although I felt they smoothed over the edges a little too much and could have left the composer’s extraordinary suspensions more jagged and exposed. The tempo adopted for the ensuing Allegro seemed spot on to me and the Belceas captured the weight and depth of the work together with the elegant Classical poise.  There was superb interplay between all four members of the Quartet and a clear sense of the structure of the piece and musical argument.  The slow movement was played with exquisite refinement and I particularly liked Corina Belcea and Antoine Lederlin’s handling of the imitation between violin and cello.  The final section of the movement had an ethereal quality which showed Mozart at his most sublime.  The Belceas adopted a more robust approach to the scherzo which was played with finely calibrated dynamics.  I was impressed with the very natural and intuitive way in which they picked up and extended musical phrases.  The finale was light and effervescent and Corina Belcea played the concerto-like passage work with brilliance and panache.

Webern’s Five Movements, Op 5 is one of the most original and daring works from the first decade of the 20th Century and it marks the beginning of the composer’s use of extremely concentrated forms of expression.  Webern uses all the sound effects then available to string players, including playing near the bridge of the instrument or with the wood of the bow and in three of the pieces mutes are used.  The first movement was highly virtuosic and showed the Belceas using a striking and imaginative range of textures and sonorities.  In the second and fourth pieces the players scrupulously adhered to the very soft dynamics Webern had permitted them and I liked the way in which they drew the audience in and made one aware of space and ambience – it was the musical equivalent of the feeling one gets watching motes floating in sunlight.  The third movement scherzo had a rawness and acidity and it was once again played with enormous flair.  In the final piece I would have liked to hear a little more of the tenderness that Webern asks for (it is marked In zarter Bewegung) although the Belceas’ control and handling of the material was remarkable.  The audience listened with rapt concentration throughout and seemed captivated by these extraordinary pieces.           

In the second half, Valentin Erben joined the Belcea Quartet for one of the great pinnacles of the chamber music repertoire:  Schubert’s Quintet in C.  In the previous century Mozart had produced two masterpieces for string quintet in C and G Minor and for both works he added an additional viola.  Schubert broke the mould by scoring his work for two cellos and it is one of an extraordinary series of masterpieces written in the last year of his life.  The Belcea Quartet has recorded this work with Valentin Erben and there has been widespread critical acclaim for their recording.  That recording was made in 2009 and I am pleased to say that this performance showed the performers have lost none of their edge.  

The tempo for the first movement was well judged and all of the players were alive to the extreme contrasts and changes of mood in the music.  The first subject was well executed but I wondered if more might have been made of the muscular qualities in the music and the unconstrained emotional anguish allowed to spill out more.  The second subject where the two cellos interweave to create a spellbinding duet was gorgeous and had a sense of intimacy and quiet reflection.  As the movement unfolded one became increasingly aware of the extreme fluctuating shifts of mood, the poignancy and sadness and the moments of pure poetry and lyricism.  Time needs to stand still in the Adagio second movement and it did in this performance – the inner strings created a radiant, entrancing web of sound which seemed to hypnotise the audience while Corina Belcea gave us exquisitely drawn musical phrases.  The central section of the Adagio is one of those moments in Schubert’s late music where the emotion seems too overwhelming to cope with.  There was passion and fire in this performance but I was not entirely convinced it captured the white heat or profound depth of the composer’s anguish.  

The scherzo was upbeat and boisterous with all the players giving us rich vibrant sonorities and I liked the way the modulations seemed to send us darting in new and unexpected directions.  The players brought out well the extreme change of character and mood in the trio.  There was a deep solemnity and sense of foreboding here but also a quiet nobility in the face of adversity.  In the finale the players displayed feisty high spirits in the Hungarian dance sections while the C major sections were enchanting.  However, the dark shadows never leave us in this movement – in a way the pain is almost more acute as the composer manages very extreme states of mind while showing the world an optimistic front.  The players successfully navigated through the emotional vortex before the final appoggiatura sent a dark shiver down my spine.

There was world class playing from the Belcea Quarter and Valentin Erben to savour in this performance.

Robert Beattie   

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