Review: Late Schubert & Beethoven Chamber Music, Belcea Quartet, Snape Maltings, May 8

A sunny Sunday morning at Snape was devoted to two late masterpieces in the key of Bflat major. Beethoven’s six movement string quartet op 130 was originally published with the visionary but demanding Grosse Fugue as the finale, as indeed was the initial intention of this performance. However, second thoughts (some might say common sense) reinstated the ‘lighter’ finale.

The Belcea Quartet has established an enviable reputation over seventeen years and in this wonderful performance they showed precisely why they are rated so highly. From the opening descending figure quickly giving way to rapid semiquavers one immediately sensed the right sound, the right atmosphere for late Beethoven. The enchanting third movement Andante con Moto had a light spontaneity, the twists and turns elegantly negotiated. The exceptional sense of unity and on-going interaction was at its most evident here. The famous cavatina yielded deep satisfaction, all players finding a rich sonority to buttress the noble tune. The finale – the very last music Beethoven composed – completed a magnificent reading and one must be for ever grateful to the composer’s publisher who (doubtless with some trepidation) asked for something easier than the Grosse Fugue.

It needed a musician of the calibre of Imogen Cooper to follow such a performance. She began Schubert’s last piano sonata at a steady tempo that grew in authority. Despite occasional moments when the piano sounded a little resonant the spirit of the music was well captured and there was a particularly satisfying coda. The melodic line of the slow movement was brought out very clearly, followed by a soothing and flowing middle section and an exquisite delicacy of touch at the very end of the movement.

The nimble scherzo was beautifully realised and it was particularly pleasing to hear the trio make more sense that it sometimes does – often it seems little more than a pause for breath. The finale was played with exemplary clarity and articulation and it was a real pleasure to hear the accompaniment fitting in so neatly to the overall structure.

Imogen Cooper looked drained at the end, as well she might, but she can reflect on a job well done and the enthusiastic response was fully deserved.

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Gareth Jones

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