Belcea Quartet

String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op.50/4
String Quartet No.2, Op.36

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 3 August, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The Belcea Quartet. Photograph: Sheila Rock, EMI ClassicsThis recital found an imaginative way of incorporating two of the four Proms ‘anniversary’ composers. One creator relatively scarce in appearances this year is Benjamin Britten, whose second published string quartet was written in 1945 to mark the 250th-anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell (born 1659, 350 years ago).

The work was his most substantial in the idiom, with the Purcellian tribute most explicit in the third movement Chaconne, a tour de force of compositional prowess longer than the previous two movements combined. Those two movements build considerable tension in different ways – an atmospheric Allegro and febrile scherzo.

The Belcea Quartet, long familiar with music they recorded in 2004, gave a performance of exceptional dynamic contrasts, capturing the sense of far-off intimacy that can be felt when listening to this vividly descriptive music. The ccherzo was particularly tight, the tense sound secured by the musicians playing loudly while using mutes, bows near to the bridges. In the Allegro Britten’s wide range of expressive devices were brilliantly employed without being obviously spotlit, and Corina Belcea-Fischer’s portamento near the end was perfectly judged.

As the Chaconne unfolded there was a real sense of gravity from the stern opening statement of the theme, with its jagged rhythms. Each of the three instrumental cadenzas was strategically used by cello, viola and first violin in turn, and the obsessive dotted rhythms taking over after the cello cadenza were particularly striking. A powerfully affecting performance was crowned by the emphatic, double-stopped C major chords that made for a strongly affirmative conclusion.

Prior to the Britten, second violinist Laura Samuel and viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski spoke of their love of Haydn, with Chorzelski picking out the composer’s light hearted humour in the Opus 50/Number 4 string quartet. While there was humour in this performance there was more of a real sense of Sturm und Drang, a tension aided by the composer’s unusual choice of key.

As the players noted, this Haydn quartet has acquired an unofficial nickname of ‘Graveyard’, due to its abundance of ‘sharps’ in the keys used, yet the members of the Belcea Quartet were secure in their tuning throughout. Delighting in the transformation from darkness to light of the first movement, they gave a sweetly phrased Andante and charming Minuet, the dance rhythms affectionately pointed by Samuel in particular. A strident fugue, with which the finale began, merely added to the sense that here was a work containing many pointers to a more-mature style of the writing of string quartets.

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