String Quintet in C, D956
Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea-Fisher & Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)] with Valentin Erben (cello II)
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 19 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Just two days before this late-night Prom, the Royal Albert Hall rang to the sound of 1,000-plus performers; this particular Tuesday night the huge stage attracted just five, gathered to perform a high watermark of Romantic chamber music. Placing Schubert’s String Quintet so close to that gargantuan rendition of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony demonstrated the versatility of the RAH.
At first, the contrast between the dark-red auditorium and the in-black musicians of the Belcea Quartet (together with second cellist Valentin Erben of the recently retired Alban Berg Quartett) – huddled at the heart of the platform like small ships in a large sea – seemed too jarring to overcome, like the deliberate absurdity of a contemporary performance art piece. But, as eyes and ears adjusted, the more there seemed to be to love about the arrangement, the vastness of the surroundings interplaying with the performance suggesting a commentary on the work’s depth and scale. With the musicians’ sound so fragile, an eerie hush descended on the audience as though no-one wanted to break the spell, excepting those who clapped between movements.
The musicians expertly calibrated their performance to the space, but never lapsed into overstatement. Tempos were broad enough to retain clarity in the cavernous acoustic, but never at the expense of vitality. It helped, too, that these interpreters worked their way through the score in a way that revealed its depths while remembering its often-easygoing charm. The opening Allegro was as fresh and the second theme as inward as possible; the tumult at the centre of the Adagio flowed and quarrelled simultaneously with Corina Belcea-Fisher and Antoine Lederlin’s way with the long melody at its heart being a model of simultaneous sustain and expression. The scherzo trod the fine line between excitable and frantic while the glacial calm of the trio hung in the air achieving an intimacy barely conceivable before these musicians had begun Schubert’s long journey. If one aspect didn’t quite reach these heights, it was the work’s very conclusion, which held back from the darkness inherent in the final bars; a small point, though, considering the brilliance of the rendition and the strange concentration gained from the (in context) unusualness of the venue.