The Piano Quintet in G minor is one of the few chamber works by Shostakovich that manages to combine personal the intimacy of his string quartets with the immediacy of many of his symphonies. Composed to a commission by the Beethoven Quartet at the beginning of the Second World War it was recognised by the Soviets authorities as a significant and patriotic statement. However, as is the case for many of Shostakovich’s compositions, it is work that has several layers of meaning.

Belcea Quartet © Marco Borggreve
Belcea Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

The Belcea Quartet and Piotr Anderszewski managed to convey the complexity of the score without compromising its pure musicality. The performance was remarkable for its unity of approach and for the complete integration of the piano part, which was played with utmost sensitivity. Most notable and successful were the two slow movements which were passionately restrained and very touching. The central Scherzo had a heavier tread than it sometimes has, due to a slowish tempo, but this worked in context. The Finale is the hardest movement to bring off. The mix of the light hearted main theme alongside more troubled material is always a tricky balancing act, which then mysteriously dissolves into a strangely calm coda, all handled here in a very thoughtful and satisfying way.

If the Belcea Quartet found exactly the right tone for the Shostakovich they had to fit themselves into very different sized shoes in for Haydn's String Quartet in G major, Op.33 no. 5 that opened the concert. A work of constant surprises, they scaled down their expression and tone to produce a performance of civilised clarity. They were particularly successful in the pointing the harmonic and rhythmic quirks in the first movement and the Scherzo, as well as bringing full-throated proto-romanticism to the expanded coda of the first movement and the lyrical Largo.

It was in Janáček’s Second Quartet, “Intimate Letters”, that the Belceas demonstrated their deepest musical insights. Written in 1928 it was virtually the composer's last work and one of his most enigmatic and compelling. Written in the white heat of passion for a much younger married woman (Kamila Stösslová) who had been his muse for the last decade of his life, it is a work that lays bare the raw and increasingly hopeless emotions the composer felt.

Musically the work pushes the expressive possibilities of the quartet medium to its limits, tonality and structural concerns seemed to be on a precipice of chaos. In less adept hands the work can sound strained and hard edged. Here the Belceas found just the right balance of hysteria and quiet reflection, in the main gravitating towards the latter to good effect. The panoply and bewildering complexity of the score found an emotion and musical logic which was deeply moving and satisfying. Like all great quartets, each member contributed their individual voice, but in the combination of all four created in this most heartfelt of quartets, something extraordinary and compelling.

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