String Quartet in C, Op.20/6
String Quartet No.14 in F sharp, Op.142
String Quintet in C, D956
Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea-Fischer & Laura Samuel (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)] with Valentin Erben (cello)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 10 December, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
It was gratifying to start the Belcea Quartet’s interesting programme with one of Haydn’s ‘Sun’ Quartets, works that set out new parameters and possibilities for the performing medium. The sixth of these received a powerful performance, and it was good to report there was no holding back in laying out the dramatic effect of this music, no over-politeness in the musical exchanges in a piece particularly daring work for its time, effectively blending slow movement and minuet into one. In this case the ‘slow’ movement is a Capriccio, clearly influenced by the Baroque overture. In this performance the textures were lean, bony even – the unison introduction to the movement stern and forbidding. The Minuet had a charming lilt, however, gracefully stepping into its three-in-a-bar with phrasing carefully controlled. For the finale Haydn wrote a fugue of intricate construction and the Belcea Quartet strove to unpick every essence of the contrapuntal detail. Starting at their quietest volume they gradually gathered pace and intensity, and though towards the end the definition was less acute this was nonetheless an excellent piece of judgment.
Late Shostakovich followed; the penultimate string quartet of 1973. Dedicated to the cellist of the Beethoven Quartet, it features several solo passages for the instrument, and indeed often reduces to just two of the four players. Antoine Lederlin was extremely expressive in his cadenza intermissions, reminding us that this is a piece of memorial as well as appreciation, while in the softer music the players’ sound was unmannered and totally idiomatic. The structure of Opus 142 is that of three movements, none of which have an especially fast tempo but which reach heights of intricate expression. While the first movement strove to put on a cheerful face in its dance-related figurations, there were nonetheless uncertainties and sudden episodes of introspection. The Belcea Quartet captured this exquisite tension extremely well, resolving only towards the end of the third movement as the serenity of F sharp major was confirmed.
Schubert’s great String Quintet then received a masterful performance, helped considerably by the artistry of Valentin Erben, which transformed what would have been a good account of the slow movement into something exceptional as he traded short motifs with Corina Belcea-Fisher’s violin, the accompanying instruments looking on from a distance. The first movement was similarly unhurried, delighting in the grandeur of Schubert’s big double-stopped chords while adding an essential element of the dance to the cellos’ second theme, initially understated. The scherzo powered ahead, brightly lit but with an energy and uplifting motion that carried all before it. Countering this was the appropriately mysterious trio, divided into short phrases as the composer would want, but also illustrating what a master of harmonic movement Schubert had become. Unexpected departures to distant keys in the middle of a phrase are countered by deceptively swift chord changes to return ‘home’. And ‘home’ was where we felt for the finale, despite its occasional harmonic statements to the contrary. These the Belcea Quartet played on – the start in the minor key, the notes that threaten to lead away from C major but ultimately resolve to the home key. This was a story of music passing through strife but emerging ultimately triumphant.