Review: Belcea Quartet; Beethoven Cycle; Britten Studio; May 18th

The fourth course of the feast of Beethoven’s string quartets comprised, as on previous occasions, one work from each of the three periods but for this concert the late, relatively short, opus 135 sat along side an early work for the first half while the expansive first Rasumovsky quartet took up the second.

The C minor work from opus 18 has its strengths but overall is less consistently compelling than the other works in the set. Nevertheless, the players gave a sensitive and intelligent performance, particularly of the delicately scored scherzo.

The ambition and scale of Beethoven’s final quartet may not match those of the three great predecessors but invention and skill are undiminished.

The whimsical, fragmentary exchanges of the first movement were carried on the lightest of breezes whereas the astonishing central section of the second movement blew up in a veritable whirlwind only to disappear equally quickly. The apparently simple but deeply satisfying slow movement opened with perfect balance, sinking luxuriantly into D flat major.

Opus 59/1 began unexpectedly quickly, the noble cello tune smartly despatched but second thoughts soon prevailed and a more suitable tempo smoothly adopted. All players negotiated the harmonic thicket of the extended development section with aplomb and the delayed return to the tonic was especially welcome.

As in the C minor, the scherzo-like second movement, this time greatly expanded in scope and technical demands, was played with refinement at one moment and bucolic energy the next. The profound F minor slow movement was superbly played, a dark, bleak sadness rising to a stirring yet noble climax.

After three of the most substantial movements ever written for a quartet thus far, the fiercely demanding finale, variations on a folk-tune, calls for deep reserves of stamina and concentration. Needless to say, these were forthcoming and the final flourish of F major was greeted with deserved acclaim.

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Gareth Jones

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