Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Quartets
Belcea Quartet
rec. in concert,3-4 December 2011, 23-25 March, 18-19 May, 13 October, 1-2 December 2012, Britten Studio, Snape (Aldeburgh Music)
track-listing at end of review.

There is no shortage of complete cycles of the Beethoven String Quartets. Over the years I’ve collected quite a few and, surprisingly, I’ve never come across one that I have felt has not met my expectations. Yet, as with everything else I do have my favouites – the Italian, the Takács, the Vegh (1952 cycle), the Budapest (1951-52), the Melos and the Talich. Oh, and I recently discovered the Paganini’s incomplete cycle, which I would urge lovers of these works to explore.
What we have here is a complete cycle, previously released in two separate 4 CD volumes a couple of years ago, and now released as an 8 CD boxed set. I was overjoyed when it arrived for review, as I’ve had many hours of pleasure listening to the Belcea’s other recordings. I would single out their Schubert Quintet and ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, their Bartók cycle and their traversal of the Britten Quartets; all three, in my opinion, benchmark recordings.
The Quartet was formed in 1994 whilst its members were studying at the Royal College of Music in London. They take their name from the lead violinist Corina Belcea. Their evolution into a first class ensemble was aided by the input of their mentors, members of the Amadeus and Alban Berg Quartets. So, they can claim a good pedigree. They went on to become Quartet in Residence at Wigmore Hall, London, 2001-2006, and now occupy a similar residency at London’s Guildhall School of Music.
The present cycle was recorded in concert in the wonderful acoustic of the Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh during 2011-2012. The quartet devoted a year to the project in which ‘Beethoven’s music became an all-consuming passion for each of us’. Abandoning the usual chronological opus groupings, the Belcea has adopted a mix-and-match approach. Some may consider the choice of works on a particular CD arbitrary, but I rather like the way each disc contains early, middle and late quartets. In this way, there is an element of surprise and unpredictability to the listening experience, with preconceived ideas and expectations dissolved. Whilst this may not be to everyone’s taste, I warm to this unconventional approach and find it quite refreshing.
It is not my intention to discuss each quartet individually, but to discuss some of the highlights of the set. In the six Op. 18 Quartets Beethoven, although making use of eighteenth century conventions, begins to find his own voice. He starts to break away from the models set by Haydn and Mozart, though he is heavily indebted to them. I started my listening experience with the G major quartet, Op.18 No. 2. The Belcea plays this with a Haydnesque charm. What struck me was the elegance of their performance, with natural, intuitive phrasing and articulation. They’ve obviously lived with these quartets for many years, as shown by their attention to detail. Yet their playing is never forced, there is spontaneity and freshness throughout. You would go a long way to find a second movement so heartfelt and ardently realized. The Scherzo is witty and mirthful, and an air of exuberance enlivens the finale.
The C minor, the fourth of the set, is my favourite of the Op. 18. The Belcea captures the underlying tension and drama of the first movement. The Menuetto is not overly accented, but nicely paced. The Haydnesque finale is teasingly playful, lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek with an exhilarating prestissimo to finish off the proceedings.
With the Op. 59 Quartets, Beethoven reached a mature phase, his ‘middle period’, with works more powerful, profound and of larger proportions. Apart from the fact that they are longer than their predecessors, they are technically more challenging and more dramatically and psychologically intense. The three quartets of this group were written six years after the Op. 18 in 1806 and published two years later in 1808. They were commissioned by Count Razumovsky, a patron of the arts and Russian Ambassador in Vienna. The first two of the set have Russian themes. The first of the Razumovsky Quartets in F major (Op. 59, No. 1) was my introduction to Beethoven’s quartet oeuvre many years ago, and it is one I have long cherished. So, when any new set comes along, it is one of the first I tend to sample. No disappointments here. I like the swifter tempo they adopt for the first movement. The gorgeous, warm melody evokes a pastoral vista. There follows a lively, whimsical and sprightly second movement with declamatory chords which leap out at you. The slow movement has echoes of the spiritual and mystical features that characterize the late quartets. The Belceas are probing and penetrate the darker elements. In their finale, you feel as though a new day has dawned.
Of the next two quartets, Op. 95 seems to me to be one of the most difficult of the cycle to bring off. It’s compact and sparser textures give a foretaste of what is to follow in the late quartets. The Belceas offer one of the finest readings I have heard. Energized and vital, they bring out the dramatic elements, contrasting them with the sublime moments. I was especially taken with the tender, lyrical second movement and the well-articulated third.
In the late quartets, Beethoven moves from maturity to exploration, and with these works he breaks new ground. When you think of the great quartet composers – Haydn, Shostakovich and Bartok – no composer revolutionized the genre as Beethoven did. Yet the quartets, in exploring a new sound-world, point the way to Bartók’s works in the next century. The Belcea brings to these complex and lengthy masterpieces interpretative insight and impeccable musicianship.
Perhaps the most demanding and elusive of the quartets is the no.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131. The quartet state in their blog that it is ‘forty-five minutes of music unfolding continuously without the slightest break – a veritable musical odyssey’. Completed in 1826, it is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim. Apparently it was Beethoven’s favourite amongst his late quartets. No wonder Schubert after hearing it said ‘after this, what is left for us to write’. The Belcea gives a compelling and integrated performance of this seven movement work. One senses a continuity in the way the music is put across, and by the end you feel as though you have been taken on a journey of discovery.
Here is a quartet that is definitely at the top of its game. Intonation and ensemble is second to none. The players have an innate understanding of the structure and architecture of these scores but theirs is very much an intuitive approach. Intelligent phrasing and wide dynamic range mark out what we hear with distinction. As I have already mentioned, the Snape Maltings’ acoustic is warm, spacious and allows instrumental detail to be heard. Unlike some, they don’t produce a smoothly manicured sound, but a roughly hewn, earthy sound, aided by close miking. This is well suited to music that depicts the wide spectrum of human emotion.
Of interest is that the Belcea’s complete String Quartet cycle was filmed in the Vienna Konzerthaus in 2012. This is soon to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray, set in the context of a documentary by Jean-Claude Mocik entitled ‘Looking for Beethoven’. So we’ll have a visual document of this fine cycle, which some may find of additional benefit.
My only quibble lies with the booklet notes. Apart from a short essay setting the recording in context, and a profile of the quartet themselves, there is a notable absence of any programme notes. This, to me, is a glaring omission, especially for those coming new to these works and opting for this set as their first port of call.
This cycle from the Belcea Quartet is an impressive achievement, and I am sure will stand the test of time. I shall certainly be returning to these performances often.
Stephen Greenbank
CD 1 [62:57]
Quartet for strings no.6 in B Flat Major, Op. 18 NO.6 [23:21]
Quartet for strings no.12 in E Flat Major, Op. 127 [37:33]
CD 2 [56:09]
Quartet for strings no.2 in G Major, Op.18 NO.2 [23:05]
Quartet for strings no.9 in C Major, Op.59 NO.3 [31:49]
CD 3 [58:45]
Quartet for strings no.11 in F minor, Op.95 [20:27]
Quartet for strings no.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131 [38:03]
CD 4 [55:35]
Quartet for strings no.1 in F Major, Op.18 NO.1 [30:17]
Quartet for strings no.4 in C minor, Op.18 NO.4 [25:02]
CD 5 [69:00]
Quartet for strings no.3 in D major, Op.18 no.3 [24:59]
Quartet for strings no.5 in A major, Op.18 no.5 [27:50]
Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 133 [15:47]
CD 6 [76:34]
Quartet for Strings no.7 in F major, Op. 59 n°1 ‘Razumovsky’ [40:42]
Quartet for Strings no.8 in E minor, Op. 59 n°2 ‘Razumovsky’ [35:34]
CD 7 [71:11]
Quartet for Strings no.10 in E flat major Op.74 ‘Harp’ [31:12]
Quartet for Strings no.13 in B flat major, Op. 130 [39:40]
CD 8 [71:06]
Quartet for Strings no.15 in A minor, Op.132 [46:13]
Quartet for Strings no. 16 in F major, Op.135 [24:38]

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