The Cleveland Chamber Music Society has presented world class chamber music performers in a regular subscription season since 1949, when its first concert featured the Budapest String Quartet. Since then, virtually every chamber music group of note has performed on the series. This year alone, later concerts in the season include the Juilliard String Quartet, Jerusalem Quartet, cellist Steven Isserlis with fortepianist Robert Levin, and tenor Ian Bostridge. Although the society sometimes presents in other venues, its regular home is Plymouth United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. The church’s rectangular New England style and relatively small size, with resonant but not reverberant acoustics, is perfect for small-scale chamber works.

Belcea Quartet © Evy Ottermans
Belcea Quartet
© Evy Ottermans

The Belcea Quartet’s splendid concert on Tuesday was a success in every way and was representative of the high quality of the performances presented by the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. The Mozart String Quartet in F major, K.590, opened with a few slow arpeggios separated by pauses before launching into the main body of Allegro first movement. The themes are traded among the instruments. The Belcea players showed cohesion here and elsewhere, especially emphasizing Mozart's contrasting dynamics in the movement. The second movement is a set of variations, but not so much on a musical theme as on a constantly recurring rhythmic fragment in 6/8 meter. There are some sharp "stabs" along the way, but otherwise the movement is lyrical. Mozart's tempo indication for this work was Andante, although the first publication gave it as Allegretto. These performers definitely came down on the Andante side. It was not lethargic, but instead gave plenty of space for the music to develop. The Menuetto third movement was considerably more dramatic than some minuets, with contrasts between pianissimo dynamics in the two violins and forte responses in viola and cello. The fourth movement epitomized much of the Belcea Quartet's playing in this concert: despite great delicacy of much of their playing, they are also capable of "digging in" when the music requires it. This movement gave the opportunity for filigree by each player before the works quiet ending.

The major work on the program for me was a riveting performance of Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, both of great virtuosity and lyrical refinement. Violist Krzysztof Chorzelski spoke before the music began. He almost apologized for the quartet performing a work in (his words) "the dreaded twelve-tone system", in which traditional harmony is replaced by a manipulation of the twelve notes of the octave scale into arbitrary sequences ("tone rows") that are used in lieu of traditional scales and chords. But Chorzelski accurately described Berg as a composer of temperament and sensuality. Indeed, Berg's music is highly romantic, often verging on the edge of tonality through clever use of his tone rows and quotations from other works (in this case, a direct quotation from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and more obscure phrases from Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, and Berg's own opera Wozzeck, which had brought Berg fame a few years previously. Every phrase in Lyric Suite is freighted with emotion. Berg wrote the Lyric Suite as a kind of musical love letter or journal commemorating his ill-fated adulterous affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, sister of writer Franz Werfel. Long after Berg's death a copy of the score was discovered with Berg's own annotations about the meaning of the work. The suite's six movements move from charming, lyrical joy (Allegretto giovale) in the first movement to bleak despair of the closing Largo desolato. The fifth movement (Presto delirando - Tenebroso) was nightmarish and brutal. There is a brief respite midway through the movement, but then the harshness returns with a clear speeding of the pulse to the end. The Belcea Quartet caught every flash of Berg's temperament with elegance.

After an intermission that cleared the air of the Berg's Second Viennese style, the Belcea Quartet returned for a well-blended performance of Brahms's String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, no. 1. Brahms, as did Berg in his suite, showed a range of emotions in this quartet, from the tempestuous opening of the first movement, to a more lyrical central section. At the end of the movement the quartet played one long, beautiful chord that was striking in its beauty. The second movement Romanze: Poco adagio was gentle, but with an underlying dramatic layer. The third and fourth movements continued the Belcea's seamless legato and the flexibility of phrasing that had characterized the rest of the evening's performances. This concert reinforced the reputation of the Belcea Quartet as performers of distinction and refinement.