Belcea Quartet Excel in UK Première of Larcher’s Challenging, Impressive New String Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Larcher, Brahms: Till Fellner (piano), Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea & Axel Schacher [violins], Krzysztof Chorzelski [viola], Antoine Lederlin [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 19.12.2015. (CS)

Beethoven: String Quartet in B flat major Op.18 No.6

Thomas Larcher: String Quartet No.4 ‘Lucid Dreams’ (UK première)

Brahms:  Piano Quintet in F minor Op.34 

When the Belcea Quartet’s performance of Austrian composer Thomas Larcher’s String Quartet, ‘Lucid Dreams’ had drawn to a close, my guest for the evening remarked that the music – stark, challenging, extreme, despairing – might have been a fitting response to images from a refugee camp in Syria or Iraq.  A programme note (Anselm Cbyinkis, transl. Misha Donat) explains that the individual movements are dedicated to ‘four people who died while the work was being written.  Beside three people from his own circle, Larcher commemorates the 24-year-old stowaway, clearly a refugee, on a British Airways flight from Johannesburg to London who fell onto a roof in the vicinity of Heathrow Airport on 19 June 2015’.  Clearly, Larcher has captured and communicated a recognisable, if painful, spirit in this work, his fourth quartet for strings.

The movements are labelled with simple tempo and expressive instructions: fast or slow, flowing or free.  The music is characterised at times by a quasi-primeval rhythmic energy – impulsive, often frenetic – creating taut and highly strung dynamism, which the Belcea reined in, controlled and used to powerful expressive effect.  Elsewhere in the quartet there is tenderness, as in the ‘cantabile’ second movement whose lyrical melody contrasted breadth with translucence, and gravity, as in the homophonic hymn-like passage towards the end of this movement which was played with scant vibrato.

Textural extremes and contrasts abound.  Throughout there is much stratospheric writing for first violin, and leader Corina Belcea impressed with her pinpoint accuracy, centred intonation and crystalline tone.  In the first movement the pizzicato gestures were warm and full, rapidly repeating figuration evoked tense anxiety, and the cello’s glissandi added to the tactile kaleidoscope.  The ‘fast’ third movement invoked the spirit of a Beethoven scherzo, the rhythmic unpredictability creating an ‘edgy’ mood which tightened further in the rapid dry scurrying of the quasi-‘trio’ section.  The latter came to rest on repeated resonating chords, the gradual acceleration of which demonstrated the Belcea’s remarkable co-ordination and ensemble.  The unfolding imitation and spontaneous outbursts of invention of the final ‘Slow, free’ movement, offered us a wealth of sonorities: clarion-like reverberations, mercurial staccato passages, glissandi, organ-like reediness.

There was no undue exaggeration or aggression in the Belcea’s performance, just disciplined commitment which brought out the dynamic force of Larcher’s music.  And, ‘lucid dreams’?  Well, a lucid dream is a dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming; or as Aristotle noted, ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.’  Perhaps this infers the dreamer’s desire or opportunity to manipulate the dreamed experiences, to control their destiny?  I’m not sure that I understood the significance of the title, or appreciated the range of associations which inform Larcher’s quartet, but it is certainly a work that stamps a deep impression.

The Belcea’s interpretations are always well-considered but also notably individual; admirably, they are not afraid to take risks or to think afresh.  On this occasion, though, our preferences parted company, for the Quartet seemed intent to align Beethoven’s Op.18 No.6 quartet with the bleakness of Larcher’s expressive world, whereas for me the work is characterised by a joyful spaciousness – almost orchestral at times – which, though tinged with shades of gravity, extends and reaches out, rather than recedes into introspection.

The Allegro con brio started cheerfully enough, though there was, for this listener, not enough untroubled freedom; the Quartet did not repeat the exposition, pushing onwards to the tenser development rather than allowing the relaxed conversational tone – the easy exchange of ideas between first violin and cello, complemented by the lively chattering of second violin – time to settle.  The Belcea again emphasised dynamic and textural contrasts.  But the recapitulation was exuberant and the players conveyed a strong sense of the dynamism of sonata form, in the way that the reprise emerged from development.

The Adagio ma non troppo has much pathos, but there is richness and elegance too, and here these qualities were by overshadowed by sorrow and restraint.  The Belcea did adopt a persuasively flowing tempo but as the first violin embarked upon the expansive, arching opening theme I’d have liked fuller quavers in support from beneath.  Second violinist, Axel Schacher, made his thematic interjections count, though.  In the closing passage, the introversion of the Belcea’s introspection seemed out of place.  The turn-like hemi-demi-semi-quaver gestures that rise through the voices are surely more than anxious fragments; they need to be presented with warmth and eloquent presence as they transfer from viola, to second violin, to leader.

Adopting a characteristically risky tempo for the Scherzo, the Belcea dispatched its challenging and enigmatic rhythmic lurches with not a deviation from metronomic rectitude!   Again, the accents were exaggerated, creating a quite ‘modern’ sound world.  The first violin skipped with grace through the gambolling leaps of the Trio, but the linking passage leading to the repeat of the Scherzo was astonishingly forthright and dark.  The quiet, slow episode which precedes the Allegretto quasi Allegro is marked ‘La Malincolia’, and Beethoven instructs that it should be played with the ‘greatest delicacy’.  In the Belcea’s hands it was eerily restrained, the pianissimos almost inaudible but the sudden explosive forte chords quite bitter in tone, creating intense drama if not cohesiveness.  The fragmented re-appearances of the ‘Malincolia’ section in the flowing gaiety of the Allegretto were supremely controlled, however; this was unassuming but assertive leading from Corina Belcea.  And the movement ended with a racing Prestissimo that scampered to the final cadence.

Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor seemed to release all expressive anxiety: there was tension, of course, but this was balanced by joyfulness and majesty.  The Allegro non troppo possessed a Beethovenian intensity: coiled yet threateningly potent.  The movement opened defiantly and explosively.  Till Fellner’s gorgeously flowing piano melody, in unison with the first violin, was an imposing presence; the understated formality of the pianist’s manner belied the hypnotic suavity of his playing.  But any initial concerns about balance were swept aside by the Belcea’s commitment and opulent, full tone which countered Fellner’s surging piano lines.  Now dynamic contrasts seemed expressive rather than confrontational – gestures to be incorporated into an overall argument.  In particular, cellist Antoine Lederlin seemed liberated, and his contributions were especially captivating and eloquent.

The way that the various voices – full but subtle piano chords, sonorous cello pizzicato, viola and first violin in melodic duet – integrated at the opening of the Andante, un poco Adagio was utterly beguiling.  As was the manner in which the tempo pushed forwards at times, creating a dynamic momentum towards the conclusion.  The players’ real delight in the devilish tricks of the Scherzo was fully apparent!  The first violin melody soared powerfully in the expansive monumental statements; elsewhere the taut rhythms had real propulsive power.  The perplexing Poco sostenuto introduction to the Finale, Allegro recalled the mysteries of Beethoven’s ‘Malincolia’ episode, but inscrutability was cast aside by the capricious folky march launched by the piano and cello.  The racing rhythms and major tonality brought a sense of relaxation and release.  In this astonishingly committed performance of Brahms’s Quintet, the Belcea and Fellner created both persuasive progression and dramatic cohesion.  There were intimations of painful tragedy but also celebrations characterised by joy and grandeur.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment