Belcea Quartet delivers powerful Beethoven at Gardner Museum
Cycles of Beethoven works have once again become fashionable, and the London-based Belcea Quartet has played a significant role in that trend. Their recital of three Beethoven quartets at the Gardner Museum Sunday afternoon offered assurance that, in the right hands, integral programs of the composer’s works can still present something fresh and new for listeners.
Last year, the ensemble—composed of Corina Belcea (violin), Axel Schacher (violin), Krysztof Chorzelski (viola), and Antoine Lederlin (cello)—embarked on an exploration of the Beethoven quartets, and, since then, the group has performed the complete cycle around Europe. This month, they are touring the Northeastern U.S. with performances of the late quartets.
What they bring to this well-trodden territory, evident in Sunday’s performance, is a combination of ensemble precision, tight balance and bold, almost fearless interpretation. This is an ensemble that holds nothing back.
The Belcea musicians performed a nearly flawless account of the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95. The Serioso, though not a late quartet, bears some resemblance to the challenging and occasionally esoteric works that would follow over a decade later.
In the first movement, the musicians displayed outstanding control of the dynamic contrasts and deftly handled the composer’s abrupt shifts of mood. The ensemble gracefully handled the phrasing in the second movement’s fugal section. First violinist Corina Belcea maintained a strong, focused sound even in the soft passages. Solid attacks and precision playing in the ensemble graced the third movement, played here with furious concentration.
The musicians provided a high-octane rendering of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 135, the composer’s last substantial work. The musicians seemed to think and breathe as one in the opening movement, where they elegantly handled the phrases and passed fragments of melody between one another with ease. They also controlled the delicate lines and syncopated rhythms in the second movement scherzo with finesse. In the third movement, Belcea developed a slight edge to her song-like violin tone that gave the music a feeling of longing.
The ensemble’s intensity, in particular, was well suited to the final movement. Here, the musicians performed with deliberate power and precision. The ensemble developed a rough tone by the end of the exposition, but that seemed to highlight Beethoven’s metaphysical question and answer—“Must it be?” “It must be!,”—that serves as the crux of the movement. That the performers failed to repeat the development and recapitulation—which the composer deliberately marked in his score for formal balance—did not diminish their rendering of Beethoven’s most philosophical utterance for the string quartet medium.
Though not as polished as the other pieces, the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, which concluded the recital, was likewise filled with many fine musical moments. The second movement’s minuet and trio brimmed with smooth phrasing in the whole ensemble.
The exposed parts and sustained pitches in the high tessitura of the third movement presented the biggest challenge for the ensemble. The movement opens with soft statements that are echoed in each instrument—a hymn of Thanksgiving to the Creator, which was Beethoven’s response in music after overcoming a serious intestinal infection. The quartet played the music with a reverent tone, but they overreached in a few places. The quality grew thin, becoming almost brittle in the upper register. The strings regained their warmth in the later variations. The ensemble returned to its former poise and full tone in the final two movements.
With performances like this, the Belcea Quartet is well on its way to becoming a leading advocate for the interpretation of Beethoven’s quartets.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform works by Haydn, Milhaud, Copland, and Bartók at the Gardner Museum November 11 at 1:30 p.m. gardnermuseum.org.
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