Yesterday afternoon the Belcea Quartet blew into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall and proffered three Beethoven quartets — one middle, and two late. Accomplished players all, this quartet prefers windy peaks with their dramatic vistas to the calm valleys of restraint and poise.
The Belcea Quartet, formed in 1994 at the Royal School of Music in London, retains Corina Belcea on first violin from its founding membership. Now joining her on second violin is Axel Schacher, and on cello Antoine Lederlin — concertmaster and principal cello, respectively, with Sinfonieorchester Basel. Rounding out the current lineup is Krzystof Chorzelski on viola, who is professor at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where the quartet is now in residence). I had never heard the Belcea Quartet so greatly anticipated this concert. The group walked on and seated themselves in a square, facing in towards one another. It is a solution to performing in the round in this hall, even if not an elegant one; while the visuals were not ideal, the acoustics (on the ground floor), sadly, were fine.
The Beethoven string quartets are familiar to Gardner audiences, most recently heard in the Borromeo Quartet’s traversal of the cycle which culminated last April. So it was a bold choice for the Belcea Quartet to program three Beethoven string quartets in one afternoon. The concert began with String Quartet in F Minor, op. 95, “Serioso” (1810/11), then moved to the parallel major key for Beethoven’s final String Quartet in F Major, op. 135 (1826), and, after intermission, finished with String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132 (1824/5), the third Galitzin quartet.
From the first note, this music was presented appassionato. The tempi were brisk; the dynamic contrasts were heightened, excessively so. There were moments that portended well: the fugato in the opening Allegro con brio of the op. 95 quartet was a very successful combination of repetition and variation on the thematic phrase. I was struck by Axel Schacher’s performance, marked by good blending with other voices but also his wonderful ability to modify tone and timbre to bring out the second violin line at key moments. Unfortunately I found such moments to be the exception rather than the norm. In the opening Allegretto of op. 135, I found the rapid pace and quiet dynamic combined to occlude the rapid passagework, and the movement’s conclusion was wholly unconvincing. That quartet’s Vivace was frenetic; it is a testament to the players’ skills that the ensemble remained together. The Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo was throaty, excessively so. The molto adagio of op. 132, marked Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart, can be music of sublime beauty and tenderness; here the extreme pianissimo dynamic gave a tentative quality to the music, removing the core of the sound to leave wisps of music behind. The musicians played with and without vibrato, and this gave a starkness to the music which seemed at times an anticipation of Samuel Barber; the effect was musically sound but this alone did not redeem other decisions factoring into these interpretations.
As the afternoon wore on, edginess overtook tenderness, and the contrast of extremes became an end in and of itself. The quality of tone suffered: far too often the first violin sounded strident, the viola brittle, and the cello became lost at the bottom of the pile. Fortissimo passages were biting, the sound forced. There was little easy or poised here; the quartet muscled through the music with little, or no, subtlety. The overblown readings of these quartets took on a desperate, manic quality – as though the musicians sought to embody the most extreme portrait of a Romantic hero, an ardent adherent of Goethe’s Werther such as rarely existed in historical fact but has now become an oft-repeated trope beloved of teenagers. The Belcea Quartet clearly live for musical moments of unbridled passion; unfortunately, much of the beauty was lost in the unrealized quest for an important new take on Beethoven’s string quartets. It was sad to hear such skilled musicians go so far, so wrongly far, astray.