Review: Belcea Quartet, Beethoven Cycle VI, Britten Studio, December 2

Belcea Quartet, Beethoven Cycle VI, Britten Studio, December 2

Exactly a year after it began, the Belcea quartet’s cycle of Beethoven quartets concluded at the weekend with the wholly appropriate choice of the last music that he wrote – the replacement finale for opus 130.

The members of the quartet - Corin Belcea, Axel Schacher, Krystof Chorzelski and Antoine Lederlin – have been playing together since 1994 and formed a sophisticated musical partnership. First violin Corin Belcea is the most obviously extrovert and her bright, incisive playing is ideally suited to her role. Yet successful string quartet playing requires so much more, in terms of awareness and interplay, and this is where the other members make such skilful contributions.

The evening began with the D major quartet from opus 18, generally thought to be the first quartet Beethoven composed. It begins quietly but there is a youthful confidence in the smoothly moving music and graceful tunes. The whole work was played with a crisp elegance and the final Presto had a bubbling excitement.

The Harp quartet opus 74 turned out rather differently. It was written in 1809 when the composer’s hearing was in serious decline, making public appearances and private relationships increasingly difficult, which was sometimes reflected in his music. The quartet is still the work of a master but there are passages of great intensity, sometimes verging on the hysterical, particularly in the first and third movements. The players gave a full-blooded performance that was always compelling even if it did occasionally make for uncomfortable listening.

Opus 130 needs no advocacy and, as in their previous performance that included the Grosse Fuge, was marked by polished playing and affectionate insights. The wonderful third movement sparkled with happiness and the Cavatina once again seemed to bring the world to a standstill. The replacement finale is generally cheerful and it is good to think that after all his suffering and achievements Beethoven closed his composition folder with a smile.

This year long journey has been one of exceptional pleasure, discovery and re-discovery – thank you Beethoven, Belcea and Aldeburgh.

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Gareth Jones