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There comes a time in the life of most string quartets when, for better or worse, Beethoven must be confronted. For the acclaimed Belcea Quartet (named after its first violinist Corina Belcea), that time is now. The London-based group, founded at the Royal College of Music in 1994, is thoroughly steeped in Beethoven's 16 string quartets — pieces written throughout the early, middle and late stages of his career in an epic sweep of compositional mastery and imagination.
Over the past couple of seasons the Belceas have performed all the quartets in London, Liverpool, Aldeburgh and Hamburg. But early this summer, in the Austrian cities of Vienna and Schwarzenburg, they ramped it up a notch by playing all 16 works in successive evenings. Their performances are being released on CD, beginning in November.
Although the group has always had quartets by Beethoven under its fingers, violist Krzysztof Chorzelski says that, even with this recent saturation, you never really conclude the journey.
"You need a lifetime to climb this mountain," Chorzelski told Germany's Die Presse. "Probably we will never be completely finished."
This concert is one of three the ensemble is presenting at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. They focus on Beethoven's final quartets — among the most personal, enigmatic and powerfully forward-thinking pieces in his output. In the late quartets, the idea of the string quartet became whatever Beethoven wanted it to be.
The Op. 127 Quartet in E-flat, heard in this concert, might be laid out in the traditional four movements, but the piece has the weight and the length of a massive symphonic statement.
The Op.130 Quartet in B-flat, constructed as a light-hearted serenade in six movements, feels more like a raw, intimate communication — like a late night phone call from a troubled friend. In the Cavatina, Beethoven instructs the first violinist to play as if "choked up" (beklemmt). And even the momentary rays of sunlight in the preceding German dance are somehow veiled.
The quartet originally ended with a muscular, unprecedented 15-minute fugue (known as the "Grosse Fuge") that Chorzelski calls "a nuclear explosion, aimed at threatening the very idea of structure and gravity." Beethoven's publisher forced him to write a substitute finale and released the fugue as a separate piece. But even that more docile ending, Chorzelski told ClassicalSource.com, is filled with mischief.
"There is a moment in the supposedly well-behaved replacement finale of Opus 130 where in the early stages of its development a very serene and gracious new idea is introduced," he said. "The transition back to the main material initially seems to follow convention and just as we are expecting the reassuring return of the opening idea, a brusque fortissimo unison is played — brutally mocking the movement's main motif — and then a brilliant fugato unfolds. It feels like Beethoven has built this sudden jolt into the piece as a purely theatrical device, a joke at the audience's expense."
Beethoven: String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127
Beethoven: String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130
Corina Belcea, Violin
Axel Schacher, Violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski, Viola
Antoine Lederlin, Cello