Belcea Quartet at Wigmore Hall

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
String Quartet in F, Op.59/1 (Razumovsky)
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea-Fischer & Laura Samuel (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)]

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 26 February, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Belcea Quartet. Photograph: Sheila Rock, EMI ClassicsThe members of the Belcea Quartet have a very individual performing style and take risks, which is what music-making is all about, cultivating a quite small sound and making extensive use of that vital expressive tool, variable vibrato.

Schubert must turn most composers green with envy. He seemed to have a penchant for writing, and then discarding, glorious one- or two-movement ‘bleeding chunks’ and the Quartettsatz is a marvellous example of this profligacy. The Belcea Quartet chose a flowing tempo for the opening but in the second subject their use of extreme dynamic contrasts sounded rather forced and the decision to omit the exposition repeat was unforgivable. Structurally this is vital and in effect we were given a fragment of a fragment. There were also numerous tempo variations and a worrying lack of tension and line in the performance.

There were no problems with the first movement repeat in the Beethoven – none is marked. There was however a problem with Corina Belcea-Fisher’s intonation, which was occasionally approximate. Nor was there much sweep to the playing and, as with the Schubert, there was an element of navel-gazing. The second movement is clearly a scherzo, even if it is not marked as such and the players sought to bring a Mendelssohnian sense of lilt and fantasy to the rhythms and dynamics. And yet the tempo was just a fraction too slow and it all seemed rather contrived. The sublime Adagio molto was better. Here the slow tempo allowed both the first and second subjects to reveal their profound beauty, there was a real sense of communication between the players, and the passage where the violins weave an angelic pizzicato spell to accompany the lower strings emotional outpourings was exquisite. But – and it is a big ‘but’ in Beethoven – for all the beauty of the playing there was no spirituality here, no true emotional depth. Much the same could be said of the finale. Here there has to a sense of inexorable power and progression and this was only hinted at.

In the first movement of ‘Death and the Maiden’ I wondered if the Belcea members had been talking to Alfred Brendel, who rarely repeated expositions in Schubert , because once again there was no repeat. There were also rather too many major and micro tempo variations and the swooping and swooning in the second subject was over-the-top. During the slow movement the great eponymous song becomes the basis of a series of variations and although there was beauty of expression, there was no true sense of death walking. The tempo for the scherzo was ideal, but the darkness of the trio was only hinted at. In the finale there was attack and some spirited sforzandi, but no real tension or a sense of danger, and as a result one felt emotionally and intellectually short-changed.

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