Mozart’s String Quintet in C major, K515, is a largely untroubled, optimistic work, in total contrast to its K516 partner, a darker, much more introspective affair. Given what was to come later, the Belceas’ choice of the former to start their programme was a wise one. In the opening movement Mozart places pulsing inner parts in the middle of a conversation between a simple rising cello arpeggio, and a high ornamented first violin answer. Antoine Lederlin (cello) proclaimed his arpeggio with presence, whilst Corina Belcea (first violin) responded with subtle sweetness.

Belcea Quartet © Marco Borggreve
Belcea Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

Mozart then pulls a masterstroke by reversing this, in the minor, and Belcea amd Lederlin switched styles perfectly, this attention to the individual character of Mozart’s lines making this performance immediately stand out. They took the Menuetto at a leisurely pace, gently pastoral rather than coarsely rustic, and the lyrical Trio had a suitably light touch. The third movement’s dialogue between first violin and viola has a whiff of the Sinfonia Concertante, and Belcea and Krzysztof Chorzelski took their time without ever overindulging, and their final exchange of scales was full of grace and poise. The finale set off at a cracking pace, the first violin leading proceedings, over a bouncing accompaniment. Given their chosen pace, the players were incredibly light on their feet, particularly Belcea’s racing semiquaver runs towards the conclusion. They also paid attention to the quirky offbeat accents on the head for home, concluding their joyous rendition.

There could not be a more complete contrast in Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, Op.110.  A response to the bombing of Dresden, and a memorial “to the victims of fascism and war”, as the official account reads? Or an autobiographical depiction of his own battle with despair and even potential suicide, as revealed in the Gilkman letters in 1993? Nothing is straightforward when trying to unpick Shostakovich’s intentions, but whether the despair expressed here is personal or universal, it has a profound impact. In the opening Largo, the Belceas took the stark motif, Shostakovich’s musical signature using the letters DSCH, and gave it a touch of warmth of tone, making it somehow more eerie and unsettling than some colder renditions.

The violent outburst of the second movement was suitably scary, and the repeated screaming DSCH motif from the first violin made the presence of the Jewish dance music (from his Second Piano Trio) that suddenly appears even more disturbing. The macabre waltz that followed felt controlled, never allowing us to relax, and the heavy fate chords from the lower strings in the fourth movement carried all the weight of the world. As the revolutionary song (Tormented by Harsh Captivity, a favourite of Lenin) rose from the depths, there was real passion, a thick, weighty tone, almost like the chains of captivity weighing them down. The first violin is finally released from its low drone, with the poignant, wistful Lady Macbeth quote, and Belcea’s lament was incredibly moving. The contrapuntal decay to nothingness in the final movement was controlled and sparse, ultimately dying away to deathly silence. This was a truly bleak and unsettling performance, stripping away any veneer of safety its relative popularity might bring. 

Antoine Tamestit © José Lavezzi
Antoine Tamestit
© José Lavezzi

Antoine Tamestit took the first viola spot for Brahms’ String Quintet no. 2 in G major, Op.111. Brahms frequently puts this part centre stage, particularly in the slow movement, which opens with the violas and cello alone. Tamestit made the melody sing, and Chorzelski on second viola, provided sympathetic support. Brahms even gives the first viola a brief cadenza here, which Tamestit presented with authority. Joachim unsuccessfully tried to persuade Brahms to reduce the weighty tremolo scoring in the opening movement, through which the cello has to bring out the opening melody, but here the players judged this perfectly, without Lederlin over-forcing, nor the others obviously dampening their throbbing accompaniment, a definite feat of expert balance.

This is lush, rich writing, with plenty of duets in thirds and sixths, and the players relished the passion. Yet they also enjoyed the third movement’s lighter, almost folksy feel, and the lilting trio section had great elegance. The first viola leads off the finale too, with the second viola and cello in tow. Here we’re in Brahms’ Hungarian territory, and there is so much detail here, passed around from part to part. As elsewhere, the players’ attention to balance was crucial in allowing this detail to shine through the dense textures, and they gave particular energy to Brahms’ unsettling, slightly lopsided rhythms, relishing the emphatic joy of the final Presto. After the existential despair of the Shostakovich, this was a reassuring and life-affirming end to the evening.