Beethoven’s spiritual odyssey

Belcea Quartet, Beethoven Cycle, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, December 4

A Beethoven quartet cycle - Himalayan journey, spiritual odyssey, call it what you will – is an event to cherish and in this part of Suffolk we are indeed privileged to have the outstanding Belcea Quartet performing the cycle over the next twelve months, each concert being repeated a day or two later.

The cycle began in the Britten Studio at Snape with the B flat quartet of the op 18 set. An effective and polished work, it shows how far the composer had extended the intellectual and emotional range of the medium in the few years that encompassed the death of Mozart and the retirement of Haydn. The performance was notable for intensely hushed pianissimos in the slow movement and a deep, searching account of La Malinconia at the start of the finale. Elsewhere the brio of the opening Allegro and the rugged syncopations of the scherzo were splendidly realised.

The performance of the concise F minor quartet was sustained by the energy and drive of the leader, Corina Belcea. She injected a note of fury almost, but quite in keeping with Beethoven’s ‘barbaric key’. Yet we were not denied moments of mystery, particularly in the slow movement with Krystof Chorleski’s sinuous viola line. The runaway closing bars of the finale had pulsating energy and excitement.

The E flat quartet op 127 may not enjoy quite the esteem of the central trio but it is certainly their equal in the wonderful slow movement. As cellist Antoine Lederlin gently laid the foundation stone and other, perfectly balanced contributions were added, one sensed a moment of musical conception, the notes and cells multiplying with a sense of purpose to build a sound world of magical beauty. It is not just for completeness that I acknowledge the subtlety and musicianship of violinist Axel Schacher who was instrumental in creating the cohesive foundations that allowed the leader to flourish. One of the challenges of this quartet is the coda of the finale, in which the tempo actually reduces but the players held firm and the increasingly assertive recalled themes drove the work to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.

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Gareth Jones

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