The Belcea Quartet Pays a Fine Centenary Tribute to Hans Keller

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Britten: Belcea Quartet (Corine Belcea & Axel Schacher [violins], Krzysztof Chorzelski [viola], Antoine Lederlin [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 11.3.2019

Belcea Quartet (c) Marco Borggreve
Belcea Quartet
(c) Marco Borggreve

Haydn – String Quartet in D minor Op.76 No.2, ‘Fifths’
– String Quartet No.3 Op.94

On the day that would have been Hans Keller’s 100th birthday, it was ‘returns only’ at Wigmore Hall for this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert by the Belcea Quartet, one of a series of events at the Hall celebrating the life of the Austrian émigré who arrived in London in 1938 having narrowly escaped the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Though deeply immersed in Viennese musical life, in London Keller planned to pursue a career as a psychologist.  However, after attending an early performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes he turned to writing about music – often using his knowledge of psychology to bring unique insights and innovative approaches to music criticism and analysis.  Keller joined the BBC in 1959 and, as a broadcaster and writer, for the next 25 years he had a far-reaching and profound influence on British musicians and musical life.  Composer Hugh Wood was one among many who turned to him for advice: ‘He taught a whole generation of us.  Only a lucky few of us formally, the rest by this process of friendly, undogmatic osmosis of a remarkable personality into one’s own.’

One of Keller’s major achievements in broadcasting was his chairmanship of the European Broadcasting Union Working Party that initiated the International Concert Season of the European Broadcasting Union.  The first concert of the first season, at the newly built Queen Elizabeth Hall, took place on 27th November 1967.  The programme included Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and string orchestra, conducted by the composer and played by the European Chamber Orchestra, and Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ Quartet in C Major Op.76 No.3, performed by the Amadeus Quartet.  It was broadcast live to millions of listeners in fourteen countries.

The Belcea Quartet’s Wigmore Hall programme, pairing a quartet from Haydn’s final Op.76 set with the last of Britten’s three string quartets, was thus an apt tribute.  Keller became one of Britten’s most fervent champions, and it was typical of him to give Britten a central role in the EBU launch concert.  The composer later reciprocated by dedicating his Third String Quartet (1975) to Keller who explained in an essay, ‘Britten’s Last Masterpiece’ (published in the Spectator on 2nd June 1979, and reproduced in the Wigmore Hall concert programme), that after a long discussion with Britten about string quartet texture and development, the composer had paused before concluding, “One day, I’ll write a string quartet for you”.

The choice of one of Haydn’s quartets for that QEH concert was also characteristic of Keller.  His radio broadcasts on music – often delivered without a written script, but meticulously prepared – frequently began with a challenging or outré statement which he would then unpick and justify.  One such was his declaration that Haydn was “the first and last comprehensive master of the string quartet”, a proposition which he developed in his book The Great Haydn Quartets: ‘On a conservative count, [Haydn] wrote 45 profound and profoundly different, absolutely flawless, consistently original master quartets, each a violent, multi-dimensional contrast to any of the others: pace the ultimate metaphysical discoveries of Beethoven’s late quartets, which great quartet composer’s output in the medium can begin to compare with Haydn’s comprehensive treatment?’

On 4th October 1971, Keller broadcast an interval talk on the first four notes of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.76 No.2 – the gesture which has given rise to the work’s nickname, ‘The Fifths’ – arguing that this unusual motif was Haydn’s compliment to Mozart’s K.421.  The opening bars of the Allegro can sound quite severe, but the Belcea Quartet created a lucid, airy sound, playing with restrained dynamics, emphasising the grace and lyricism of the melodic material, and introducing slight though expressive rubatos within and between phrases.  The result was that, rather than the unifying development of the initial fifths motif exerting a dominating grip, it was Haydn’s musical contrasts – of texture, motif and register, as the first violin tiptoed into the stratosphere or the cello grumbled in the depths – that made the strongest impression.  The development section itself was remarkably cogent and calmly reasoned, with emphasis placed on the harmonic excursions rather than motivic dissection, which served to make the cello’s final strong restatement of the opening gesture, in the bars leading to the coda, all the more telling.

Contrasts were also at the heart of both the Andante o più tosto allegretto and the Menuetto. Allegro ma non troppo.  In the former, Corine Belcea’s initial ‘aria’ was the epitome of classical gentility, supported first by shapely pizzicato and then embraced by warmer counterpoint.  The ensuing ‘variations’ gained in purposefulness, and also restlessness, though arising tensions were always contained within an abiding composure and control.  The strange starkness of the Menuetto’s two-part counterpoint was alleviated by a slight graininess of tone, while the Trio pitted rusticity against cultured refinement, robustly repeated crotchets giving way to the first violin’s staccato flights heavenward, then reasserting their stamp.  The characteristic Hungarian folksiness of Haydn’s Finale. Vivace assai was tempered by expressive rubatos, and delicate articulation and dynamics, and it was the complexity of the composer’s textural pairings and conversations that commanded one’s attention, as well as the unusual combination of animation and aristocratic bearing that the Belcea Quartet achieved.

The opening bars of Britten’s Third String Quartet revealed the appropriateness of its pairing with Haydn’s Op.76 No.2.  The austerity of the texture of Duets, the sense of an ‘argument’ being pursued, the ‘searching quality’ of the evolving material: such elements recalled Haydn’s developmental method and his experiments with textural contrast and range, although there was inevitably a more troubling loneliness which at times seems reminiscent of the desolation of Shostakovich’s late quartets.  Again, the clarity of the Belcea’s conception and execution was compelling, as was the care with which they distinguished between the varied means of articulation, while the lyric fragments and high violin threads possessed an eerie beauty.

Both the Ostinato and Burlesque balanced joviality with brusqueness, the movements’ terseness and their abrupt endings creating a tension which was deepened by whipped up-bows, abrasive unisons, glinting spiccatos, dry pizzicatos, slicing glissandi, and edgy col legno effects – which together conjured a con slancio vigour that sometime threatened to spill into a restless wildness.

Intervening between these two ebullient outbursts was the meditative introspection of Solo in which the glassy purity of the stratospheric first violin line against a blanched low cello grounding created a coolness and spectral distancing that was quite unnerving.  And, the uneasiness only deepened in the cadenza-like central episodes as the first violin’s improvisatory explosions of bird-song fluttering were countered by an agitated tapestry of pizzicatos, harmonics, glissandi and dancing arpeggio gestures which were eventually quelled into a stillness that twitched like Bartók-ian ‘night music’.

Most remarkable of all, though, was the way the Belcea Quartet communicated the elusiveness which pervades the whole quartet but which comes to a peak in the Recitative and Passacaglia.  Here, again, were echoes of Haydn’s textural innovations and contrasts, in the lower strings’ unisons and the varied pairing of voices.  This was playing of great eloquence and control: the restrained expressivity of Krzysztof Chorzelski’s beautiful viola melody and the purity of Belcea’s violin line were immensely touching.  Antoine Lederlin’s low, repeating stepwise movements, which seem to promise forward movement but which always retreat, falling back to an uneasy resting place – and which derive partly from the sound of the Venice church bells that Britten had heard from his hotel balcony – epitomised the music’s equivocations, the final ‘cadence’ denying us resolution after the false promise of a late, delicate, warming of the quartet sound.  With the final dissolution, ghosts seemed to be hovering in the Wigmore Hall silence.

One last reflection.  Interestingly, Keller and Britten disagreed about the ‘validity’ of broadcast music.  In his 1964 Aspen Award Lecture, Britten had suggested that radio could only ever be a ‘substitute’ for real musical experience, lamenting that a work such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion could be wrenched from its sacred context and ‘at the turn of a switch, [be] at the mercy of any loud roomful of cocktail drinkers – to be listened to or switched off at will, without ceremony or occasion.’  Keller concurred with the composer regarding the negative effects of the ‘repeatability’ of recorded music but argued that live broadcasting was different.  In his programme article for the aforementioned EBU concert, recalling a formative childhood experience when ‘as a small boy sick in bed, I heard the St Matthew Passion for the first time [on the radio]’, he asked, ‘if I hadn’t heard the St Matthew Passion then, who knows when I would have heard it first?’, and reminded readers that ‘Many millions of listeners in fourteen different countries will be listening to tonight’s concert. […] No doubt there will be listeners all over Europe who will misuse tonight’s concert – use it as background music, talk into it.  Equally, however, there will be little boys who will hear Benjamin Britten’s music for the first time and who, without this event, might not have heard him conduct it for a long time to come.  There will even be listeners, all over Europe, who will be more passionately involved in the concert than one or the other listener here in the hall.  […]  When frontiers have been transcended, the terms ‘mass media’, ‘mass communication’ acquire a rather different ring, don’t they?’

Keller’s words are surely no less valid and stirring today.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be repeated on Sunday at 1pm.  It is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “The Belcea Quartet Pays a Fine Centenary Tribute to Hans Keller”

  1. Yes, I support the judgments Claire Seymour expresses so elegantly: it was, in fact, an intensely moving performance of the Britten 3rd 4tet, which the Belcea were performing in public only, I believe, for the second or third time. They certainly made it their own, and both here and in the Haydn, they positively relished the contrasts, which it is the task of any composer worth their salt to expose and explore before turning to thoughts of unity (Keller’s preoccupation). Donald Mitchell asked Britten what he meant by the close, where the cello ends with a note outside the tonic triad that hangs in the air without resolving. “It means, Donald”, said Britten, “that I’m not dead yet!”. Indeed, the music lives on!


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