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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, Watkins, Brahms, Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 28th February 2004 (AN)

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in D, Op.18, No.3
Huw Watkins, String Quartet No.3 (World première, 2004)
Johannes Brahms, String Quartet in C minor, Op.51, No.1


Here we have a programme consisting of a freshly composed Welsh number flanked by two great musical heavyweights, Beethoven and Brahms. Let it be noted, however, that the 27-year old Huw Watkins is in the somewhat less intimidating company of first attempts at the quartet genre for both Beethoven’s and Brahms’ works in this programme were early compositions. Yet in spite of that comforting perspective, I did not imagine for a second that it would be the Watkins that crowned this performance by the Belcea Quartet.

Watkins’ three-movement quartet is extremely impressive - it achieves an incredible sense of calm and of urgency in the same breath. The atmospheric opening on a unison D flat branches out into a soundscape that constantly battles between disconcerting dissonances and the openness of sustained legato tones. On an articulative platform also, there is the rude juxtaposition of violent textural outbursts that scream against a backdrop of serene and translucent held tones.

The Belcea Quartet rendered a brilliant performance here. Their immaculate precision at all times – and especially at the start of the third and final movement with the violins playing at a frantic pace, but in complete union – highlighted beautifully the intricacies and nuances of this powerful musical construction. The inaugurating interpretation did much credit to Watkins’ composition.

The Beethoven, too, was a success. Not the most exciting composition, the Belcea Quartet were careful to maximise on its occasional gems, such as the remarkable opening with its compelling question mark in the form of a prolonged seventh interval. Similarly, in the fourth movement, with the fantastic pace of the instruments joining in one after the other and culminating in a cheekily understated ending. My single criticism rests with the second movement which I didn’t feel was played with enough soul or conviction. A more prominent and grounded melodic line and a less neurotic first violin vibrato would, I believe, have suited the aesthetics of this movement more closely.

Any misgivings about the slow movement of the Beethoven were quelled in the Brahms, which was played with a satisfyingly deep and rich sonority. However, I am not convinced that the first movement was pulled off so well – the integrity of the intensely-paced opening movement is at times ridiculed with a staggeringly fast first violin vibrato that in the higher registers cries out in a comically overstated fashion. But this is a small detail in a generally excellent presentation, and the Belcea Quartet did well to deliver a superb fourth movement.

What fine performances. From start to finish, nothing less than pure professionalism and untiring attention to the musical minutiae. Moreover, the Belcea Quartet were not only a pleasure to listen to, but also a pleasure to watch (albeit, in my case, from a distance and behind an unforgiving mammoth of a head – typical!)

Aline Nassif




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