2018-02-22 — Original posting
Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-02-04
Mozart /Janáček / Dvořák
The Belcea Quartet emerged at the Royal College of Music in London in 1994. Since that time, the ensemble has evolved into one of the highly respected ensembles in today’s chamber music scene. The quartet’s rich discography also gives testimony of the ensemble’s successful career. It includes complete recordings of the string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976), Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945), Alban Berg (1885 – 1935), Anton Webern (1883 – 1945), Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951), along with select quartets and chamber music works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), Henri Dutilleux (1916 – 2013), Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), and others.
The ensemble includes the following musicians and nationalities
- Corina Belcea-Fisher, violin (Romania, 1994 / founding member)
- Axel Schacher, violin (Switzerland / France, since 2010)
- Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola (Poland, since 1996)
- Antoine Lederlin, cello (France, since 2006)
For additional information see also Wikipedia.
Program & Venue
This was the second one in a new concert series in Zurich, featuring string quartet performances in the baroque church St.Peter, the previous, first one was with the Signum Quartett, on 2017-10-08. The Belcea Quartet presented a program with works by Mozart, Janáček, and Dvořák. One certainly takes a good performance of the Mozart quartet for granted. As composition, this is a classic ideal in terms of form and proportions. However, I was curious to see how much the Romanian provenance of Corina Belcea-Fisher, and/or the Polish roots of Krzysztof Chorzelski would influence the interpretation, the style of the two quartets by the Czech composers Janáček and Dvořák.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) meant to write six quartets for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II (an amateur cellist). The String Quartet in B♭ major, K.589, from 1790, is the second one of the three “Prussian Quartets” that he actually wrote (K.575 in D major, K.589, and K.590 in F major—his last string quartets altogether). The quartet features the “classic” set of four movements:
- Menuetto: Moderato — Trio
- Allegro assai
Already the first bars were breathing classic serenity: the quartet played the theme melody legato, retained, with mellow, soft tone, contrasting to the accompanying voices. The latter were light, “airy” in the articulation. In the development section, the music gets more intense, more dramatic. Yet, the quartet kept the tone under control, never let if get rough or “grainy”. The triplet chains that run through all the voices were done with a soft portato.
I enjoyed the perfect balance within the ensemble: four artists that sounded absolutely equivalent, I never felt that the first violin was trying to prevail beyond measure. That does not preclude the dialog between the violins occasionally dominating the sound: as Mozart wrote the cello part with an amateur (the King of Prussia) in mind, that instrument remains rather inconspicuous.
Only in the slow movement, Mozart gave the cello an occasionally dominant role. Right at the beginning, for example: the first violin pauses for 8 bars, while the cello presents the dreamy, serene cantilena of the main theme—above the second violin and the viola, all sotto voce (at least the accompaniment). Also later in the movement, the cello often carries the cantilena, typically alternating with the first violin.
Throughout the movement, the quartet played with exceptional subtlety in articulation, dynamics and phrasing, and with excellent balance. It struck me how well-adapted the four voices were, both in volume, as well as in the sound quality. Several times I caught myself intuitively looking up from the score, just to find out whether the instrument playing really was the one that the score indicated.
III. Menuetto: Moderato — Trio
Pretty much throughout the concert, the intonation was flawless. The Menuetto felt light, airy—not exceedingly dance-like, though.
In the Trio, the violin seemed to lead the ensemble—without dominating it, though. In the second part, the Trio switches to a more earnest tone. The Belcea Quartet followed that earnest tone, but did not exaggerate the drama. And at all time, they maintained excellent transparency.
IV. Allegro assai
The last movement initially seems harmless, but later is full of surprising modulations, unexpected turns, sudden general rests. The latter are of course not meant to be momentary catastrophes, as often with the late Schubert—Mozart can’t resist making jokes, surprising the audience.
Here, the quartet convinced with detailed dynamics, as requested by the composer. Initially, the tempo felt a tad aggressive (in the semiquavers), but that impression soon vanished: the coordination and balance were very good. Some might say that the movement was a bit on the smooth, on the harmless side: sure, a little more joking and exaggeration would not have hurt…
Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) wrote his String Quartet No.1 in E minor, “Kreutzer Sonata”, in 1923. It’s a quartet with four movements—formally, but not really following the classic scheme:
I. Adagio – Con moto
II. Con moto
III. Con moto – Vivo – Andante
IV. Con moto – (Adagio) – Più mosso
Different from classical and most romantic composers, Janáček creates music with an underlying “program”: the title / surname does not refer to Beethoven’s famous Violin Sonata No.9 in A major, op.47 directly, though (there are no direct quotes from that sonata in this quartet). Rather, it refers to the novel with that name by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), where Beethoven’s sonata plays a pivotal role. But even with this literary foundation, Janáček does not try illustrating the details of the concrete plot. Rather, he explores the emotional development, the drama that evolves. This is embedded in the melancholic, depressed atmosphere that we know from several other works by this composer.
With this composition, artists and audience suddenly found themselves in a totally different world—not just through the dramatic change in atmosphere. The emotional scope, the drama, the intensity in this quartet are far beyond classical and even most romantic compositions of that genre. Also in terms of techniques, in means of articulation, Janacek’s quartets explore a far wider spectrum.
I. Adagio – Con moto
Janáček’s music is very dense and intense in expression. Yet, the composer is extremely meticulous and specific in his notation. The movement begins with a 2-bar Adagio motif/theme that is so typical for this composer, and which instantly defines the mood for most of the quartet.
After this, the cello plays an 8-bar, rapid, somewhat hectic sequence, mostly in quavers, leggiero / Con moto. After two intermittent Adagio bars, the first violin follows up with an almost identical, fast sequence. Two more Adagio bars, and the second violin also follows up with the fast / hectic sequence. Janáček specifies ♩=224 for the cello, ♩=232 for violin I, ♩=240 for violin II. In bar 90, there is a similar sequence of events, now violin II — viola — cello, and with inverted metronome assignments, from fast/hectic to slightly slower. In this performance, these tempo changes were hardly noticeable, if at all, in both instances. Sure, they are small, gradual—but if they can’t be heard, why did the composer write them into the score in first place?
On the other hand, the quartet’s playing was very (if not extremely, at times) expressive—as expected in this music. Their approach was excellent, in general, very emotional, rather than intellectual and note for note (see above).
II. Con moto
Also here, the ensemble masterfully matched the basic atmosphere, with very emotional phrasing, rubato and dynamics, gripping articulation, and often with very strong vibrato. I’m not a friend of strong vibrato in general, but here, it was definitely most appropriate. I also found that the many contrasts and changes in tempo and atmosphere were realized very well—with a plasticity that almost made listeners feel in a theater. The playing was fully engaged, very well in-tune, the coordination excellent.
III. Con moto – Vivo – Andante
One should not and cannot ask for a beautiful tone here, quite to the contrary: in this movement, Janáček asks for very rapid, ff and sul ponticello playing. One can only describe the result as “very ugly scratching”—by design: it corresponds to the emotional abysses that open up in Tolstoy’s novel. These segments alternate with sections that exhibit begging cantilenas of utter beauty. The Belcea Quartet gave a superb realization to both these aspects.
IV. Con moto – (Adagio) – Più mosso
The last movement again features strong internal contrasts. For example, when the first violin played its malinconico melody with very strong, emotional vibrato, and with portamento, while the accompanying voices were barely vibrating at all. And again, strong, heated tremoli indicated emotional turmoil, later complemented with a galloping “rider” motif.
The exact libretto for the composition is unclear, but unlike Tolstoy’s novel (which ends in murder), Janáček’s quartet seems to have a conciliatory, forgiving ending. It’s gripping, enthralling music which precludes passive listening. In this performance, it was amazing to see how well the ensemble maintained excellent coordination through all the strong tempo contrasts, the extreme rubato. That’s not just a proof for extensive preparation, but equally an indicator for a very experienced ensemble, and the result of many years of joint rehearsing & concerts.
A last word on the Janáček interpretation: from the above it should be obvious that the Belcea Quartet offered an emotional, expressive interpretation, not a meticulous, academic representation of the score.
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed his String Quartet No.12 in F major, op.96 (known as the “American”) 1893,, while he was in the United States (hence the name). The composition overall follows the classic scheme, with four movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Molto vivace
- Finale: Vivace ma non troppo
After the Janáček quartet, there was no real intermission, but merely a 5-minute break. The Dvořák quartet brought a return to more harmonious music. This is the most well-known of Dvořák’s string quartets, and of the most popular quartets altogether. With this, a performance seems more critical, as people in the audience are typically familiar with the music.
I. Allegro ma non troppo
The opening movement started at a very fluent tempo—maybe a tad too fast? In any case, the second theme appeared clearly slower, almost a bit dragging—without corresponding annotations in the score. For the articulation see also the sections below.
The changes between melodic and dramatic segments were very clear in this interpretation. In this movement, I felt that they were too explicit, not subtle enough. Consequently, the movement was not as calm and serene as I expected. Or was the tempo maybe a tad fast?
Also, I can tolerate strong vibrato in fast, heated movements. However, in a lyrical, serene movement such as this one, I think that it rather hurts, distracts from the beauty of the music. Also, the portamenti were far too frequent and too strong / explicit, bordering on mannerism.
III. Molto vivace
To me, this movement was too straight, too direct, maybe also a tad too fast? I almost completely missed Dvořák’s subtle, “Slavonic rhythmic ambiguity”, a swaying play with syncopes and agogics.
IV. Finale: Vivace ma non troppo
The Finale was very fast—too fast, I think: it is for a reason that the composer annotated “ma non troppo“. This was very virtuosic, technically excellent, perfect in coordination, dynamics and balance, no doubt. But it felt pushed, too driven. And also here, I missed the rhythmic swaying within a bar, the play with agogics, with rhythmic shifts and syncopes. To me, this movement is more than pure artistry.
Speaking for myself, I certainly have expectations about how this music should sound & feel—and sadly, this last part of the concert did not quite meet my expectations. I disliked the often very strong vibrato, and excessive, too frequent use of portamento, and a tendency in the violins towards “Nachdrücken” (undesirable swelling at the end of longer notes, before reaching the end of the bow).
Encore — Beethoven: 5. Cavatina, from the String Quartet No.13 in B major, op.130
The virtuosity in Dvořák’s last movement expectedly led to strong applause. As encore, the ensemble played the fifth movement, the famous Cavatina, from the String Quartet No.13 in B major, op.130 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). I saw this serene, calm music as partial reconciliation with what I missed in the Dvořák quartet. But also this music I would have enjoyed even more, had there been less vibrato, and none of the occasional Nachdrücken. Still, my conclusion was that Beethoven seems to suit this ensemble more than Dvořák.
Interesting: if I’m not completely mistaken, I saw Erich Höbarth sitting in the second row of the audience . He is the first violinist in the Quatuor Mosaïques, one of my all-time favorite string quartets, and one of the leaders / pioneer ensembles in the area of historically informed performances. They have just released their recording of the late Beethoven string quartets. Erich Höbarth went to talk to the artists after the concert. I’m sure that he was polite and complimentary in his comments. However, it would have been too interesting to know what he was thinking about the performances!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.