wed 21/08/2019

Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Electrifying programme of masterpieces by Haydn, Britten and Shostakovich

The Belcea Quartet: Axel Schacher, Antoine Lederlin, Corina Belcea and Krzystof ChorzelskiRonald Knapp

Pure, unorthodox genius: the terms apply both to the three works on the Belcea Quartet’s programme – Haydn at his most compressed, Britten unbuttoned and sunny, Shostakovich hitting the tragic heights – and, if the term “genius” can be applied to re-creative artists, to the players themselves. Corina Belcea could surely have as big a solo career as violinists like Julia Fischer and Lisa Batiashvili, but she chooses to work with equally committed colleagues Axel Schacher, Krzystof Chorzelski and Antoine Lederlin in what is by and large a greater, wider repertoire.

Shostakovich once asked the Borodin Quartet, observing the terrific quantity of premieres by Soviet composers they were championing, “but have you played all of Haydn’s quartets yet?” And have you heard them all in concert? I know I haven't. As with Bach cantatas, every one’s a gem. There are more wryly classical ways of approaching the elliptical elegance of Op. 64 No. 6, but the Belceas’ unusual wildness allowed them to break the boundaries of elliptical material in the outer movements’ feast of counterpoint. The Andante is over before you know it, but what could be more extreme than the dramatic violin solo which breaks the gentle waves of its outer panels? And Belcea relished her wry slides and chirruping high-line reprise in one of Haydn’s most delicious minuet trios.

The Belceas’ recording of the three Britten quartets seems to me an unsurpassable classic, and no group has made a better argument for his First Quartet equalling the sound-world originality of its more familiar sequels. I get the feeling that the opening trio of radiant, stratospheric light against cello pizzicati - sun on the water? - has everything to do with the 27-year-old composer’s happy work on his American commission in California with new love Peter Pears by his side. Whether the Pacific or the North Sea, as others thought, it could only be by Britten.

The Belceas made Shostakovich's second grim scherzo feel as big as an orchestral whirlwind There was tireless, energetic focus on the tumbling vitality which follows. Some have heard the slow movement as darker than the rest, but it’s simply more probing, and the ardent declamations at its core blinded us with more summer light. What vibrancy in this, Young Apollo and Paul Bunyan, the brightest works of Britten’s time in America, what qualities of happy youth never quite recaptured in knottier later works.

Shostakovich’s Third Quartet of 1946 made the perfect counterbalance, all angst and inward, never posturing tragedy, despite the wayward neoclassical tune which kicks it all off. The Belceas hurtled it towards what seems destined to be collapse in the first-movement coda but is actually a jolly pizzicato cadence. They made the second grim scherzo feel as big as an orchestral whirlwind and plumbed the depths of the great melody that powers the naked lament of the Adagio, each handling the crucial turn of phrase with individual freedom before heading for the huge final challenge.

Conflict over, one of Shostakovich’s three most ambiguous quiet truces – the other two are in the Eighth and Fifteenth Symphonies – could not have been more spellbindingly done, Belcea lamenting herself to near-invisibility in the stratosphere before casting the last benediction on the other three players’ hypnotic F major. I was looking forward to similar transcendence from the team's scheduled reappearance to play Britten’s Third Quartet in early December – but I imagine the "personal reasons" for cancellation must be that Corina’s child, which a fanciful friend claimed she could see kicking (from the gallery!), will have made an appearance, or be very close to doing so, by then.

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