Review: Beethoven and Schubert Quintet, Belcea Quartet, Snape Maltings, May 8

Beethoven’s C# minor quartet is one of the finest of all string quartets, its thematic and formal unity (there is no break between any of the seven movements) make for exceptionally satisfying listening. The Belcea Quartet gave us more than satisfaction however; their faith in the music and their fidelity to every nuance of the score made this a performance to cherish and linger long in the memory.

It began with the smoothest of openings, the fugue coming out of nowhere with quiet but purposeful steps as the music unfolded. All was poise and precision, like an elegant piece of mathematics and the movement came to rest on a most delicate balance before flowing, river-like, into the fluid second movement.

The core of the work is the wonderful set of variations where we were treated to some ravishing playing and perceptive insights. The players were completely at one with Beethoven’s experimental musings and in the ethereal 9/4 variation they produced the most astonishing whisper of a pianissimo - a glimpse of heaven.

The impetuous scherzo flew by with brilliant playing and real �lan but as it ended we were immediately in another world, almost of suspended animation, in G# minor with a wonderful sense of remoteness, even alienation. The finale was driven hard early on but relaxed before a well controlled build-up to the final three chords. I could not imagine this truly great work being given a better performance.

Once again, how do you follow that? Perhaps by pairing it with one of the very few chamber works that can compete with it – Schubert’s String Quintet. For this performance the quartet was joined by the cellist Valentin Erben. Once again we witnessed music making of the very highest order. The melting harmonies of the second subject of the first movement were beautifully realised and there was a sense of deep repose in the opening of the slow movement with extraordinarily soft and sensitive playing. The contrasting F minor turbulence of the central was even more unsettling as a consequence. The hunting calls of the scherzo came across brilliantly but the profound and searching dark harmonies of the trio cast a temporary dark cloud. Even if the finale does not quite live up to the rest of the work (it would almost be too much if it did) the players made everything count, particularly the shuddering final chord. Absolutely fabulous!

Gareth Jones