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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Quartets

Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea (violin); Axel Schacher (violin); Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola); Antoine Lederlin (cello))
rec. 2011/2012, The Britten Studio, Snape, Suffolk, United Kingdom. DDD
ALPHA 262 [8 CDs: 610:12]

Of complete cycles of the Beethoven string quartets in the current catalogue there are over two dozen. In the first few bars of the first, allegro con brio, movement of the sixth Opus 18 quartet, which begins this cycle, the members of the Belcea Quartet make it quietly plain what their approach is: a very contemporary one. One which aims to push no one flavour of interpretation, nor one which risks emphasising their playing in ways that could fragment Beethoven’s achievement. Yet one which successfully exposes each individual work for the wonder it is.

Their playing prizes spontaneity. Tempi spring; they surprise. Phrasing delights and highlights the enormous variety of Beethoven’s conception of and confidence in the medium… some extremes are reached, such as the tortoise shuffling home at the end of the next, adagio, movement in Opus 18/6 [CD.1 tr.2] and the hare racing home at the end of the allegro agitato movement of Opus 95 [CD.3 tr.4].

The Belceas’ performance never eschews ‘realism’ … you can hear the mechanics of the strings and the ‘breathiness’ of the group focused on the progress of the music; though this is never intrusive - just very natural. They observe dynamics as strictly as they use Beethoven’s attention to ‘volume’ to convey range and long perspectives. There are many times when you feel they are encountering the music for the first time, are actually discovering its melody, almost unaware exactly of where it is going to lead - although very sure that it is leading somewhere. Indeed, one of the merits of this cycle is that the players have a superb grasp of direction; they are able to articulate, quite without fuss, the long lines of Beethoven’s melodic development - particularly when these are song-like, lyrical and wistful. Even in the slow movements.

Unlike recordings from some of the older classics such as by the Quartetto Italiano (Philips 454062 ), the Belceas rarely suggest complete inevitability. Rather, that we as listeners would be well advised to put ourselves into their hands because - if anyone can tease out from the music an essence acceptable to all present (though not necessarily past and future) listeners - these players can. And this set is where they are doing it.

This eight CD set on Alpha is a reissue of individual CDs and sets originally released on Zig-Zag Territoires (ZZT344) from live performances given in December 2011 and March, May, October and December 2012 at the Britten Studio, Snape, Suffolk. No attempt has been made to recreate a concert atmosphere; there is no applause, ambience or sense of occasion. Although relatively close miking means that we know these to be live, real musicians - as opposed to… paid interpreters.

But, as said, there is ample projection of the Belceas’ presence and engagement with individual movements and quartets as well - thankfully - as there is respect and reverence for the cycle as a cornerstone of the repertoire. This is not an easy balance to strike: use awe to convey the music’s greatness and it may become maudlin and over-precious. Approach it in a way that’s too businesslike and it may sound perfunctory. The Belceas strike an excellent balance - one which may remind those listeners who know the group’s discography of their Schubert Quintet and ‘Death and the Maiden’ CD [Warner Classics 67025], their Bartók cycle [Warner Classics 94400] and the three Britten Quartets [Emi Classics 57968], which introduced the group to many for the first time.

The Belcea Quartet was formed 1994 at the Royal College of Music in London. Although based in Britain, first violin Corina Belcea is Romanian and violist Krzysztof Chorzelski Polish. Their mentors were members of the Alban Berg and Amadeus Quartets. It’s in those traditions which the Belceas sit firmly and noticeably, and from which they clearly benefit immensely: dignity and intensity are nicely balanced in the service of exposing the music fully with just the right amount of colour.

To this cycle, the Belcea’s devoted a whole year, immersing themselves in the immensity of the music. In the preface which they provide to the booklet which comes with the set, they describe how the cycle became their consuming passion during that time and how the completeness of Beethoven’s conception came to form and embody (aspects of) their musical creed.

Although they nowhere say as much, it is plain that they managed to meld their own somewhat disparate make-up and the (geographical and cultural) origins of their members with an open-mindedness consciously to take advantage of those heritages. This surely helps the musicians to see inside those aspects of some of Beethoven’s most intimate writing in order to understand its universality.

The usual ways to group the 16 quartets are chronologically, or by selecting one each from the ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’ periods for most of a set’s CDs. This one from the Belceas takes a different approach (see the track listing). It’s apparently random - although it moves generally towards the later quartets. Each CD has only two works, except for the fifth, which also contains the Grosse Fuge, Opus 133, paired with the third and fifth from Opus 18. This approach sponsors freshness and may aid our appreciation of the breadth of Beethoven’s achievement.

To opt for a purely chronological sequence runs the risk of suggesting that with greater maturity Beethoven achieved greater worth. Happily the Belceas lavish as much care on the earliest works in the cycle as on the later ones… listen to the meticulous attention to dynamic and pace in, say, the allegretto fifth movement of the Opus 8 [CD.1 tr.5], where the players know that there is always something about to happen and want us to experience tautness and release as much as to be stunned by the generosity of spirit in the later works. Perhaps the oddest decision is to have sequenced the Razumovskys 3 - 1 - 2 (on CD.s 2, 6); although you are not obliged to play the CDs (or their tracks) in the order in which they are numbered, of course.

Yet what follows immediately, the E Flat Major twelfth [CD.1 tr.s 6-9], is never for a second pompous, overblown or ‘lofty’. The Belceas’ phrasing makes it plain that they know that Beethoven must himself have known what was ‘special’ in every way imaginable (and many ways unimaginable) about the work… the textual contrasts; the colours; the pushing to their limits (then) of tonality and melodic invention; and the depth of expression which had developed less than a century earlier from a quite humble genre. Their playing never tries to add its own density or dissection to the music. Nor does any individual’s playing ever step out of the Quartet’s sense of togetherness. Yes, we are aware of each instrument. But the balance struck between show and uniformity is excellent.

In some of the late quartets’ sublime slow movements the Belceas, it has to be said, go as far as to adopt an approach akin to a therapist’s: they almost ask us listeners to make up their own minds, rather than providing answers. These slow movements are generally played lovingly and with great gentleness here, rather than with the sort of insistence and solemnity typical of other recommended accounts, such as those by the Borodin, Busch, Emerson, Endillion or Takács Quartets. Those reveal something quite different.

One advantage to this approach of the Belceas, where suspension is as important as exposition, is that tonic resolution - such as that towards the end of the adagio second movement of Opus 127 [CD.1 tr. 7] - sounds all the more inevitable without being in any way forced. The technique of the Belceas is admirable. Such faster passages as those on which the allegro molto of the second Opus 18 relies for its sense of conclusion [CD.2 tr.4] are played in such a way that the close seems a worthwhile point to have reached in its own right, rather than as part of a convention where fast is last.

It’s also instructive to observe that way in which the Belceas match tension and (always sober) intensity with Beethoven’s confident refinement, extension and embellishment of the new medium invented by Haydn a few generations earlier at most. Although Beethoven made it his own, he never forget - these performances remind us - the tradition which gave them their strength… the consonances which only strings can celebrate; (Viennese) humour; transparency and clarity of melody and harmony; and the meaning of changes in dynamic behind which no-one can hide anything; an almost primal sense that such a combination as the instruments of the string quartet’s lies at the very essence of musical invention.

Another quality which comes naturally to the Belceas’ playing here is sympathy. In slow movements in particular. Listen to the sensitivity and gentleness with which they caress the seemingly unending twists of the andante of the second Razumovsky [CD.2 tr.6]. And yet observe the ma non troppo of Op.131’s opening adagio [CD.3 tr.5]. Again, the fact that theirs is an interpretation for our time is evident: these are surely romantic performances in that the players relate to Beethoven’s feeling, sense of regret, joy, sadness, reserve or despair, hope and elation. Perhaps most importantly the composer shows us that feelings mean something over time and so put the individual at the centre of the music. Yet you know that - at the same time - the performers never fully lose themselves in the emotions… in the way that, say, the Busch Quartet does.

Just as impressive are the faster movements: there is as much sensitivity as there is precision and exactness in the Belceas’ playing of movements like the Opus 95’s allegro first movement [CD.3 tr.1] when contrary tonal progressions - however well-behaved - vie with one another for our attention - and marvel. Equally striking is the way in which each member of the Quartet observes dynamic markings and minute changes in tempo; such as those towards the very end of this first movement and at the start of the second. The players communicate what Beethoven wanted, to be sure. But do not do so as proof of their own understanding of small-scale and individual virtuosity; rather because it’s what the music demands.

The acoustic - that of the Snape Maltings - is as good as always: almost ‘human’ in its warmth, roundness and sympathetic resonances for the mellow string sounds; yet neither too reverberant nor intimidating. In addition to the aforementioned page and a half setting the scene in the set’s booklet, there are two essays by Harvey Sachs relating to the earlier format in which this cycle appeared… ‘Volume I’ and ‘Volume II’. He takes us through the works outlining briefly the origins, context and import of each. He also articulates what could well stand as a summary of the strengths, weaknesses and overall value of this set: quoting the Italian stage director, Giorgio Strehler, he suggests (at least implies) that it behoves performers to “…first think about how small your ideas will seem next to the greatness of the texts you are interpreting.”

The Belceas may not reach the heights and depths of playing which other ensembles’ performances have demonstrated to be possible - though rare. Yet they have something new and valuable to say about Beethoven’s 16 quartets. That they are intimate; and that in their intimacy rather than their grandeur lies their approachability. That they exude a remarkable variety - of intention, thematic origin, flavour (dramatic, lyrical, quizzical) and execution. That rhetoric and pomp are unnecessary in order to reveal the quartets’ humanity. That observance of details (of form, dynamic, counterpoint, togetherness) aids our understanding of the process of invention.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the Belceas invite us to make the most of our unavoidable sense that these quartets are the work of one person; yet can move us, inspire us and amaze us in very special ways. ‘Spectacular’, ‘stunning’, ‘stretching’ are less likely to be ways in which this set should be described than ‘sturdy’, ‘solid’ and ‘stable’. The interpretations lack nothing in conviction or competence. Though not the most packed with insight, or an accent on the sheer beauty of Beethoven’s string writing, this is a cycle that demands our attention and deserves it. Its value - ultimately - lies more in consistency and confidence, than as a reference set full of ineffable vision.

Mark Sealey

CD 1 [62:54]
String Quartet No. 6 in B-Flat Major, Opus 18 No. 6, 1798/1800 [22:21]
String Quartet No. 12 in E-Flat Major, Opus 127, 1823-1825 [39:33]
CD 2 [55:54]
String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Opus 18 No. 2, 1798/1800 [23:15]
String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Opus 59 No. 3, 1805/1806 [31:49]
CD 3 [58:30]
String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Opus 95, 1810 [21:07]
String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131, 1826 [37:23]
CD 4 [46:19]
String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Opus 18 No. 1, 1798/1800 [30:17]
String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, Opus 18 No. 4, 1798/1800 [24:02]
CD 5 [68:36]
String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Opus 18 No. 3, 1798/1800 [21:59]
String Quartet No. 5 in A Major, Opus 18 No. 5, 1798/1800 [27:50]
Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Opus 133, 1825-1826 [15:47]
CD 6 [76:16]
String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Opus 59 No. 1 'Razumovsky’, 1805-1806 [40:02]
String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Opus 59 No. 2 'Razumovsky’, 1805-1806 [35:34]
CD 7 [70:52]
String Quartet No. 10 in E-Flat Major, Opus 74 'Harp’, 1809 [31:12]
String Quartet No. 13 in B-Flat Major, Opus 130, 1825-1826 [39:29]
CD 8 [70:51]
String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, 1825 [46:13]
String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Opus 135, 1826 [24:38]



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