The uncluttered stage mirrored the promised clarity of quality string quartet writing and playing; four chairs, four music stands, BBC microphones suspended on a wire, promising a future broadcast. A capacity Queen's Hall audience of 900 welcomed this young quartet, a decade after their Edinburgh International Festival début. Named after 1st violinist, Corina Belcea-Fisher, the former BBC New Generation Artists eased into the fifth of Haydn's Op. 20 'Sun' Quartets. The ensemble playing was such that it immediately felt like the interpretation of one musical mind and not four. This felt especially true in the Adagio which, despite its light Sicilienne feel was short on neither gravitas nor the power to transport. The finale, a Fuga a due soggeti (Fugue with two subjects) was an joyful lesson in compositional and interpretative mastery. People stand out in a crowd by being tall, loud, bright etc. Fugal subjects often call attention to themselves (and without such attention the fun of fugue can't really take off) by angularity. Haydn used a theme familiar to most from the fugal chorus, And With His Stripes We Are Healed, from Handel's Messiah. The second subject – the detached, jaunty accompaniment figure, based on four repeated notes, from the very opening – was easily distinguished from its more angst-ridden counterpart. The vigorous playing elicited a very warm response. Anyone hoping to explore this wonderful piece can find a Gresham College lecture on the piece here.

© Ronald Knapp
© Ronald Knapp

Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad was commissioned on behalf of the Belcea Quartet by the Wigmore Hall, where they had been quartet in residence from 2001 until 2006. The work of British composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage, it reflects his eclectic influences – the paintings of Francis Bacon and the jazz world being notable examples in the past. In this instance, the source material and language is Led Zeppelin, to whose fan base Turnage was a late arrival. The titles of the outer movements, Twisted Blues (Variants on Led Zeppelin's 'Dazed and Confused') and Twisted Ballad (Reflections on Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven') hint at the compositional process; melodic and rhythmic fragments, thrown around the quartet, receive a serious harmonic reworking. Threaded throughout this harmony are bare 5ths – a staple of every distortion-dependent guitarist - the driving sound of which put me in mind of my favourite heavy metal string quartet movement, the closing Allegro Molto of Bartók's String Quartet No. 4. The outcome of Turnage's writing - captured and conveyed brilliantly by the Belcea Quartet - is an urgent and often breathless outpouring of howling energy. The central movement – not thematically related to Led Zeppelin - shares its title (Funeral Blues) with the Auden elegy best known to many from Richard Curtis' 1994 film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Marked 'Very slow, cold and hollow' its muted material communicated an unsentimental, empty grief all too rarely portrayed. I hope the Belcea Quartet record this soon as I can't wait to hear it again.

Beethoven's six-movement String Quartet in B flat Op 130 was the sole item in the second half. The opening Adagio, ma non troppo somehow communicated that an epic voyage had been undertaken. Even the radical sorbet provided by the Turnage couldn't mask how far the genre had developed between relatively early Haydn and late Beethoven. The handling of the quixotic contrasts of tempo, dynamics and mood reaffirmed my initial impression of the Belcea Quartet; that here were four musical minds operating as one. It may be the nature of slow movements, affording the listener time to be aware of the magic that is taking place, but during the beautifully felt 5th movement, Cavatina: Adagio Molto Espressivo - it struck me that 900 people had left the bustle of Edinburgh's Saturday morning streets to gather in this converted church and listen to four people officiate in some kind of communion. The uproar of gratitude which followed the Finale: Allegro suggested that something very special had been felt by a great many people.