The innovative programming of the Hamburg International Music Festival has lost nothing of its courage and shine this year, notwithstanding the fact that in 2021, every concert took place online only in a streaming format – and free of charge at that. Whether in orchestral or chamber music concerts, solo recitals, jazz sessions or a three-part “Celebration of Black Music”, the Festival has been curated with excellent taste and the concerts I have heard so far have been performed at the highest technical and musical level.

Belcea Quartet, Tabea Zimmermann and Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Daniel Dittus

The Belcea Quartet, performing not for the first time at the Festival, presented a two-recital condensed survey of Johannes Brahms’s string chamber music. In their first concert, the programme was the Hamburg composer’s first string quartet and second string quintet, whereas, a day later, they played the two string sextets with associate artists Tabea Zimmermann and Jean-Guihen Queyras.

Live concerts have a certain etiquette with ushers in uniform, the obligatory drink in the interval and – hopefully – encores at the end of the concert. The genre of the streaming concert was slow at first to develop its own etiquette (replacing the one at live concerts), but more and more often, digital concerts became pleasing to watch and not just to listen to. To borrow Wagner’s term, a streamed concert has become a Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete artwork, where elements including lighting, microphone placement, the possible use of drones, the background and the stage behaviour of the artists have all played a part to offer artistic satisfaction.

It was thus surprising that this concert suffered in the area of technical preparation (but certainly not from a lack of artistry by the performers). The back walls of the Recital Hall of the magnificent Elbphilharmonie were covered by some three-dimensional purple material, reminiscent of the scenery of a futuristic film from bygone times – well, this is a matter of taste. It was, however, distracting that subtitles announced details of the performance for a whole minute after the musicians began playing. Furthermore, whoever was responsible for the filming completely overlooked a strong spotlight shining behind Corina Belcea’s head: every time the first violinist was shown in the foreground, her head was blurred in a hazy light. Sadly, the camera work was also inconsistent and regularly suffered several bars of delay when turning to an instrumentalist playing a new theme.

Belcea Quartet, Tabea Zimmermann and Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Daniel Dittus

The vast experience of the Belcea Quartet and their guests made the concert a rewarding event. In a most gratifying way, these four musicians, despite their diverse backgrounds (they are from three different countries) presented a unified sound and well-formed understanding of the String Sextet no. 1 in B flat major, Op.18. Their technique was as impeccable as the balance between the four instruments. In the Sextet no. 1, Zimmermann took the first viola part and Queyras the second cello part, while in the String Sextet no. 2 in G major, where Zimmermann played second viola and Queyras first cello. This proved significant: when taking the second part in their respective instruments, the guest artists blended completely into the musical texture, playing often even more in the background than the other musicians with non-thematic material.

Things changed noticeably when they took the leading role on their instruments. Both artists being first rate communicators, their eyes kept moving from one colleague to the other, as if they had little use for their sheet music, slight smiles acknowledging a beautiful solo melody played by someone else or when they were playing in parallel with another instrument. The first movement of the Sextet no. 2 was slightly slower than is often heard and when it was Zimmermann’s turn to the play the third animato theme towards the end of the movement, she took off with bold energy and a substantially faster tempo than played previously. Her playing of the slow movement’s theme was a truly memorable musical experience: her absolute control of the instrument produced the power of a velvety yet enormous sound, poignant not even by its played but its implied volume. Queyras excelled in taking exactly the right tone to match the sound of the quartet in the Sextet no. 2, but took the initiative when needed, such as in the courageously virile second subject of that work’s finale.


This concert was reviewed from the Elbphilharmonie's video stream.

****1