The Belcea Quartet at the Wigmore Hall: Breathing New Life?

Ludvig van Beethoven String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18 No. 6
Thomas Larcher ‘Lucid Dreams’ String Quartet No. 4
Johannes Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

The Belcea Quartet
Till Fellner (piano)

Positioned between two giants of the chamber music repertoire – Beethoven and Brahms – sat a new piece by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher. Balancing these works wasn’t easy for the Belcea Quartet at their concert at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday night. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the difficulty wasn’t so much in bringing enthusiasm to a work that is new and unfamiliar, bur rather ensuring that the other pieces didn’t sound dead in comparison.

This season, the Belcea Quartet is celebrating 20 years of playing together, so it is unsurprising that their ensemble playing is meticulous. The evening opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18 No. 6. The set of six quartets that constitute Beethoven’s Op. 18 were his first efforts in the genre, and they cannot match up to the emotional intensity of his late masterpieces in the genre. The work still provided the Belceas an opportunity to display their excellent ensemble playing: even the subtle decrease in dynamics that phrased off the pizzicato close of the second slow movement was done in complete accordance. The sparser moments in the movement also allowed for the individual parts to be heard, and we were treated to Krzysztof Chorzelski’s lovely lament on the viola. Meanwhile, Corina Belcea on the first violin sung serenely above the ensemble, although she could at times sound a little jagged, as if she were pushing a little too hard to project. The Belecea nevertheless attained the right energy for the third movement’s Scherzo, switching from a swift dance on their tip-toes, to still fast heavy stamps.

Beethoven instructs players in the final movement that ‘this piece must be treated with the utmost delicacy’. Unconventionally for a final movement, it begins with a slow, and sensitively expressive introduction. Given the care that Beethoven took to give these instructions, the Belceas could have done a better job of maintaining his dynamic instruction too: sempre pianissimo – always very quiet. The Belceas played gently, but the audience should have been straining to hear them, it should have been a whisper.

The UK premier of Thomas Larcher’s ‘Lucid Dreams’ String Quartet No. 4 followed. The quartet’s title refers to the moment when you’re on threshold of consciousness. and you’re aware you’re dreaming and can influence the dream’s events. Whether or not anyone felt this upon listening (I can’t say I did) Larcher’s new piece and the Belcea’s performance of it was hugely engaging. The work opened with scratchy and chaotic repeated notes that the Belceas made electrifying, especially when contrasted with more melodic held notes. The second slow movement’s melody had an innocently simple tunefulness, but the out of sync cello gave this supposed sweetness an underlying eeriness. Larcher has excelled at composing a piece that twists and writhes unpredictably yet remains absorbing. The piece is sometimes relentlessly repetitive – such as the gradual speeding up of repeated notes that occurs in the third movement for huge dramatic effect – which both works to provide considerable drama but also coherence.

The Austrian pianist Till Fellner joined the Belceas for the final work: Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. It is a heavy work, with the piano giving added thickness and monumentality. Fellner did a good job of blending into an ensemble that is far more familiar with each other than he is with them. They came together for some ferocious playing, especially for the return of the main theme in the first movement. However, Fellner had some difficulty in imitating the strings’ delicacy in the second movement. Whilst Fellner and the Belceas appeared to be playing with much rigour, this somehow did not translate into the sound they produced. The music felt like it was dragging, and – especially after following after Larcher’s piece – they had difficulty breathing life into the work.

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