Continuing their Beethoven cycle, the Belcea Quartet gave us another selection spanning Beethoven’s string quartet writing, allowing us to see how Beethoven transformed the medium from its elegant beginnings through to the complexity and expressiveness of his final works.

Belcea Quartet, © Ronald Knapp
Belcea Quartet,
© Ronald Knapp

The Belcea Quartet began the concert with a poised and confident performance of the work that is labelled as Beethoven’s first string quartet, the Op. 18 no. 1 (though the set’s no. 3 was actually the first written). They then moved on to the brilliant inventiveness of the third quartet that Beethoven wrote for the Russian Ambassador to Vienna, Count Razumovsky, Op. 59 no. 3. After the dramatic chord that opens this work, the Belcea Quartet took it right down, playing the phrase that followed in hushed introspection: it has been suggested that this opening is Beethoven’s response to his growing deafness, and the quartet’s playing of it powerfully suggested the encroaching silence.

What this performance really illustrated was that the beauty of Beethoven’s quartets lies in the extremes. The fast and furious passages, such as the end of the first movement and last movements of the Op. 59 no. 3 and the very end of the Op. 132, were played with such force and energy that I felt pinned back in my chair; it was like being on an aeroplane screaming down the runway. What gave the performance such spark was that even in the complicated faster passages, the players were still able to convey a sense of the musical line, so we could feel where it was going and everything made sense.

Contrasting with the fireworks, the three quartets performed this evening also all had ravishingly beautiful slow movements. The Molto adagio of the Op. 18 no. 1 was apparently inspired by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet. The movement opens with a gentle staccato quaver accompaniment in the lower parts, under a violin melody which returns again at the end with impassioned flourishes and dramatic pauses. In the slow movement of the Razumovsky quartet, it was the cello that shone, with some surprisingly expressive pizzicato playing. Antoine Lederlin banged out the little punctuating cello passages with the sort of force that is normally only seen from jazz bass players.

The String Quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, was completed after a Beethoven had been seriously ill, and its third movement (Molto adagio) was titled “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Divinity from a Convalescent”. The opening chorale section was beautifully soothing and full of light; I could feel myself relaxing as I listened to it (I’d had a slightly stressful journey to the Sage, had rushed into the concert only just in time, and had been feeling a bit frazzled!). It was almost too relaxing, for the work lost a bit of its momentum and focus going into the fourth movement.

I’ve written before about the amazing level of communication that is evident from the Belcea Quartet’s playing, and overhearing comments from the audience, I know I’m not alone. Tonight it stuck me that this isn’t a quartet at all: it’s a single instrument with sixteen strings and four bows. Melodies passed seamlessly from one part to another, and in the opening of Op. 132’s Molto adagio the players locked eye-contact with each other and barely glanced at the music. The exquisite timing of the pauses that punctuate the end of Op. 18 no. 1’s first movement was thrilling: there was no sense that one player was leading the others; they simply did it, together. Seeing the Belcea Quartet perform live gives you the experience of being allowed into something very intimate, and takes the music to a whole new level, beyond just listening to a recording.