One of the best places to be on a Sunday afternoon in Boston is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In addition to the other delights of Mrs. Gardner’s quirky palace, chamber music of consistently high quality is offered all season long in the intimate setting of the second-floor Tapestry Room. One of the leading younger ensembles on the international chamber music scene, the Belcea Quartet, appeared there on April 25 in a program of works by Beethoven, Szymanowski, and Bartók.
Opus 18, no. 6, in B flat, the last of Beethoven’s early quartets, already finds him breaking new paths within the Haydn-Mozart tradition. For the first movement, the Belcea players chose a sprightly alla breve tempo that gave full value both to its opera buffa mood and to Beethoven’s often perverse dynamic accents, tweaking the opening turn figure as it rollicked through the ranges of all four instruments and playing up the suspenseful hush before the recapitulation of the main theme for all it was worth. One could only regret their decision not to take either of the repeats (exposition and development-plus-recapitulation) indicated in the score. (And what did the program annotator mean in citing the “coda” of this movement, when in fact there is none?)
The Adagio was played with delicate expression and attention to ornamental detail that contrasted with the darkly spooky minor section opening in stark octaves, and the players were more than a match for the riotous syncopations of the scherzo. The supreme test of ensemble playing, however, came with the mysterious slow introduction to the Finale, titled “La Malinconia.” Maintaining a vibrato-less pianissimo throughout, except for occasional loud outbursts, the quartet launched into the cheerful German dance that follows, shadowed only by a brief return of the “Malinconia” music before the brilliant prestissimo conclusion.
The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is perhaps best known for his two violin concertos and his music for piano. After an early development that followed successively in the footsteps of Chopin, the impressionists, and German post-romantic and expressionist composers, he turned in the 1920s after the reestablishment of the Polish state to a more overtly nationalist movement, looking, like Bartók, to indigenous music as a means of invigorating national styles while avoiding provincialism. The three movements of Szymanowski’s Second Quartet, Op. 56 from 1927, reflect this shift. The first movement, “Moderato,” alternates lyrical duets for violin and cello and violin and viola with expressionist outbursts.
The waltz-like second movement, “Vivace, scherzando,” draws on the folk music of the Tatra highlands, its fiery melodies and crisp pizzicato passages interspersed with richly scored chords. Impassioned contrapuntal writing in the third movement, “Largo,” features a canon for second violin and viola. The Belcea Quartet has a particular affinity for Szymanowski’s music and plans to include more of it in its upcoming programs.
Bartók’s Quartet no. 1, op. 7, dates from 1908-1909 and followed his 1907 Transylvanian tour and his own discovery that folk music could be the basis of a personal style. The “Lento” first movement was conceived as a lament for Bartók’s failed relationship with the violinist Stefi Geyer and even incorporates a version of the motif that dominates the first movement of the concerto Bartók composed for her. The tone is one of late-romantic yearning, unfolding in an opening canonic duet between first and second violins, which is then taken up by the viola and cello and returns in the violins at the end of the movement. Although the Belcea’s leader, first violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher, generally tended to dominate the ensemble with her brilliant and sometimes edgy tone, her playing was beautifully matched to that of her partner in these eloquent duets. The other members of the Belcea Quartet are Laura Samuel, violin, Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola, and Antoine Lederlin, cello.
Further conversation between violins and cello links the second and third movements: here instrumental recitative features the two melodic styles — tempo giusto in the violins and rubato parlando in the cello — that Bartók distinguished in Transylvanian folk music. The “Allegretto” waltz of the second movement was followed by an “Allegro vivace” Finale in the explosively rhythmic folk-like style familiar from Bartók’s later quartets and well suited to the Belcea Quartet’s energetic and highly integrated playing style.