Concert Review

Belcea Quartet Dutilleux, Haydn & Beethoven, Blackheath Halls 2 April 2000

Blackheath Halls' regular Sunday Mornings audience is getting used to the gradual introduction of contemporary music alongside standard repertory. There was only one complaint that Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la Nuit (1976) "isn't music"! This evocative piece, several movements played continuously, was the centrepiece of the Belcea Quartet's recital. It brought out the range of timbre and expressivity which these talented young players have at their disposal. Long overshadowed by Messiaen and Boulez, this rather retiring and fastidious composer, 84 this year, formerly director of music for French radio, is now to be heard more frequently and it is encouraging that there in the current catalogue are four CD versions of this, his only string quartet.

The Belceas did not reach top form immediately. They began Haydn's Op 76 No 5 quartet with the attack and high-voltage energy which won them accolades at the last London triennial International String Quartet Competition in 1997 (join S&H, visiting this year's competition at Goldsmiths Hall next week, a feast of quartet playing at the highest level!). But on this occasion their vigour was at the expense of a degree of refinement. Sunday morning isn't the easiest time to play, and Blackheath Halls' Recital Room has an immediacy that can be disconcerting, especially with the curtains behind the platform open. It also seems possible, from regular experience, that the barrel ceiling can emphasise stridency of metal violin E strings.

Ensemble and tone colours were sensitively handled in the Dutilleux, and after the interval they returned to give a really superlative account of Beethoven Op 18/6 (La Malinconia), the one with the extraordinary finale with its malinconia (melancholy) slow introduction re-appearing to interrupt the dancing allegretto. This was clearly a carefully considered, well-honed interpretation, which lifted the morning's music making to new heights. That quartet of c.1799 has been noted to prefigure the much later Op. 130, the sublime Cavatina of which was the Belcea Quartet's choice for their encore. The Belcea Quartet's unusual interpretation of Op. 130 with its original Grosse Fuge finale was recently reviewed in S&H, February 2000 from the Wigmore Hall.

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The latest recording of the Op 18 Quartets is of special interest. It commits to CD the Brodsky Quartet's millennium project, coupling each Beethoven quartet to a new one inspired by it; Elena Firsova's elaboration of La malinconia (premiered at her 60th birthday concert, March 2000, at the Royal Academy of Music in London) brings the third of the CDs to a moving conclusion. The whole Brodsky project was premiered live at Cabot Hall, March 2000. A full review of their CDs will follow next month. Meanwhile, purchase can be confidently recommended [Vanguard Classics 99212].

Peter Grahame Woolf

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