The epic Birmingham Beethoven Cycle is a remarkable collaboration, in the 2012/13 season, between the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (who are performing all the symphonies), Town Hall Symphony Hall and a variety of outstanding artists including Leif Ove Andsnes, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Steven Osborne. It has also featured the Belcea Quartet in a mini-residency at Town Hall performing quartets by Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich – all masters of the genre.

Belcea Quartet © Ronald Knapp
Belcea Quartet
© Ronald Knapp

Tonight’s concert featured quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich, both composers who not only mastered the form but used them to channel a very personal form of expression, albeit in rather different circumstances. I sensed thoughtful programming here as both quartets were composed within a year or so of the completion of the composers’ respective ninth symphonies. Cross-pollination of ideas between these symphonies and the respective quartets are very much in evidence.

Shostakovich’s Third Quartet, for instance, is cast in five movements, just as his Ninth Symphony is. Similarly jaunty opening movements can be found in both works, too. It was soon clear that the Belceas had all the tonal and emotional resources required to bring Shostakovich’s sound world to life and produce a gripping performance. There was real bite to the louder, more sarcastic passages, a playful sense of rubato and ultra-soft dynamics that actually made me lean closer to hear the music.

Violist Kryzsztof Chorzelski was an animated presence throughout this performance and gave the ostinato that begins the second movement real grit. Again, the quartet demonstrated brilliance in their ability to go from the softest of bow-bounces to the loudest of percussive strokes, all the while maintaining astonishing precision of ensemble. Several bow hairs were collectively lost by the end of the acerbic central Scherzo. An impassioned unison opening to the fourth movement (Adagio) gave way to a haunting melody, poignantly played by the quartet’s charismatic leader, Corina Belcea. The final movement recalls the jauntiness of the first but in a rather more subdued, not to mention bitter, mood. The intensity of the previous movement is also recalled and in the closing measures Belcea intoned the final despairing melody against the bleak backdrop of vibrato-less sotto voce chords sensitively provided by her colleagues.

In the second half, weighty opening chords and a richer sound from the Belceas heralded a different approach for Beethoven’s Twelfth Quartet. As with his symphonies, Beethoven revolutionised the string quartet genre, taking Haydn’s essential form as the basis for his earlier quartets and transforming it in a variety of ingenious ways (that still sound remarkable to modern ears) so that the later quartets bear only passing resemblance to those of his admired teacher.

Those opening maestoso (majestic) chords, for instance, used to introduce the first movement are somewhat akin to those that open his third symphony, the Eroica. Their return before the development section suggests we are to be taken back to the beginning of the movement – but it is a trick, and we carry straight on. As the material develops these chords intrude back, suggesting that the development is over, but it is not! The Belceas managed the transition between these grandiose chords and the pithier main subject with ease and some of the bite that was needed in the Shostakovich was brought out once more in the more stormy sections of the development. Beethoven’s nonchalant quiet ending seems all the more unusual after all of this.

As with the Shostakovich, the emotional core to Beethoven’s Twelfth Quartet is found chiefly in the Adagio movement. Here, the Belceas were soulful in their playing of the barely related variations that make up the movement. The still serenity of the movement is briefly interrupted by a swifter section in the middle that is almost jaunty by contrast. After this came beautifully turned trills played by Belcea, sounding like the birdsong that is evoked in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. The composer only really wrote one truly profound slow movement in his symphonies, and that was in the Ninth. The Adagio in the quartet arguably achieves greater profundity, but there are marked similarities between the movements.

There was a suave elegance to the quartet’s playing in the Scherzo. Here, again, the tricky transitions between time signatures were managed with ease. Just occasionally the Belceas’ attack in their playing came at the expense of clarity of inner parts and the movement felt a little hard driven at times. However, they brought an infectious energy to the dancing rhythms of the finale, bringing a very impressive concert to its end. The Belcea Quartet’s return to the Town Hall in July is keenly anticipated.