Belcea Quartet balances power and refinement in dramatic style

By Lawrence A. Johnson


Since its founding in 1994, the Belcea Quartet has established itself as one of the leading young international chamber ensembles, with a string of award-winning recordings on EMI and acclaimed appearances at the world’s major concert halls. The Belcea players returned to Gusman Concert Hall Sunday evening for its first local stand in several years, courtesy of Friends of Chamber Music.

I recently commented that few chamber groups seem to program any of Haydn’s numerous less-often played string quartets, but the Belcea members did just that, opening with Haydn’s Quartet in F sharp minor, Op. 50, no. 4.  The set of “Prussian” quartets—so named because of their dedication to King Frederick William the II, royal and amateur cellist—show a marked progression in the form, with the influence of Haydn’s young friend Mozart palpable in the greater dramatic edge and harmonic complexity.

Haydn’s music made a fine calling card for the Belcea members. The group is uncommonly well balanced with the gleam and quicksilver virtuosity of first violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher matched by the lean brilliance of violinist Laura Samuel, violist Krzysztof Chorzelski, and cellist Antoine Lederlin. The dramatic bite was there, yet without overwhelming Haydn’s essential charm and airy grace, with a particularly affecting rendering of the Andante’s dream-like variations.

Another Op. 50 followed, Serge Prokofiev’ss String Quartet No. 1. A product of his American years, the B-minor quartet was written on a commission from the Library of Congress (those were the days). The quartet is surprisingly underperformed considering Prokofiev’s popularity, yet the composer was clearly fond of this work, transcribing the final movement for string orchestra as well as solo piano.

The music is entirely characteristic—acerbic angularity and motoric rhythms blended with the brooding melancholy of his great ballets; the tick-tock motif that fades away at the coda seems like a pre-echo of Cinderella. The Belcea’s taut bravura proved eminently well suited to this music, the group throwing off the frantic virtuosity with unbridled intensity, just as surely as they assayed the slow movement’s searching introspection.

The evening culminated in a memorable reading of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. Here again, the group’s corporate refinement and ability to hold both the drama and lyricism in skillful balance were striking. Yet it was the Andante’s variations, which mine Schubert’s title song, that provided the highlight of the evening, rendered with a haunted, otherworldly expression that seemed entirely apt.

[Photo by Sheila Rock.]

Posted in Performances

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Mon Mar 9, 2009
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