A Masterful Belcea Quartet Program at Union College
A Masterful Belcea Quartet Program at Union College
Capital Region Classical
October 15, 2023
The Belcea String Quartet
Corina Belcea, violin
Suyeon Kang, violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola
Antoine Lederlin, Cello
Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4 (1798-1800)
Allegro ma non tanto
Andante scherzoso, quasi allegretto
Quartet No. 1, Sz. 40 (1909)
Introduzione - Allegro vivace
Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, L. 91 (1893)
Animé et très décidé
Assez vif et bien rythmé
Andantino, doucement expressif
Très modéré-En animant peu à peu--Très mouvementé et avec passion
It was two years ago that the Capital Region Classical hosted the legendary Belcea
Quartet to this listener’s great delight Belcea Quartet performs Szymanowski and Schubert.
Since then, second violinist Axel Schachter has been succeeded by Suyeon Kang, bringing a fresh pairing with Ms. Belcea’s lead.
The Beethoven opus 18, No. 4 and Debussy’s G Minor Op.10 sandwich the elusive and emotionally fraught Bartók Quartet No. 1, which served as a darker destination between the outer anchors.
Beethoven’s opus 18 set should never be relegated as “early works” as if the sophistication, architectonics, and emotional impact were absent and slated for the later, deafer genius. The C minor demonstrates his innovative and grandly bold creativity. Only the constraints of traditional forms, which he keeps close to the vest, restricted his frontier instincts to rove about. Of course, later in life, the forms themselves were reexamined. Unlike the Haydn model, Beethoven strives for starker contrasts between primary and secondary exposition subjects. After the impassioned opening, there follows oom-pah tonic-dominant thrusts, which prepare the lyric major theme, to be followed by mysterious hesitancy. The performers really hugged their strings during the contrapuntal development preceding those dramatic chordal thrusts. The second movement, an easily decoded series of fugal stretti, is marked “a la scherzando” and is in 3/8 time. One almost imagines this would be the putative minuet or scherzo of a Haydnesque form.
However, it is cast in a traditional second movement binary form. The movement’s almost comically mechanical counterpoint is a welcomed light touch from the stormy mood of the opening movement. The Minuetto is an undulating chromatic dance with cross accents, syncopation, and searing melodic contours. One can’t help imagine Schubert being influenced by this, along with the translucent textured trio section. A rondo á la hungroise, very much influenced by Haydn, concludes the quartet with much good humor and a C major cadence.
The 1909 quartet of Béla Bartók is a three-movement work in a seamless flow. Even though conventional forms are used (canon, sonata, ternary), it is best to think of this work as a series of theatrical tableaus. For example, the dirge-like canon in pairs represents the literalness of the past and its immutable footprint. However, as early twentieth-century society and artists were contemplating the new era where “time” was to be redefined and reexamined by physics, the seeming “present” was seen as incorporating the past in propelling a future frame of reference.
In the first movement, the harmony suggests pentatonic “plateaus” as stagecraft for new musical phenomena borne of the past and present motives. This leads to a churlish exchange of cello and viola perhaps signaling the anxiety of future time. The restiveness, though, allows the first violin to float ethereally in its celebration of being. This flight is passed to the cello as a solo against the other synchronized players. A remarkable pause with pizzicatti brings back the haunted memory of the opening paired canonic dirge. A scherzo-like section follows (mostly in 3/4 time), utilizing the core motifs; past formalisms dominate, until, at last, the ethereal yearning returns. An interlude “Introduction” serves as a recitative and farcical dialog before the final movement. With splintered themes, canonic fragments, and considerable humor, Bartók plays out the motifs in variations of sorts, almost mimicking stage idioms. After a very Hungarian sounding adagio, the action heats up while still maintaining the motif of two half-steps separated by a diminished sixth.
A fugue prepares the energetic peroration in which there is little reflection or melancholy, just a feverish pentatonic trajectory. Throughout, the Belcea seemed to find an artistic ideal in conveying the great coloristic and dynamic challenges of this seminal work.
Debussy’s sole string quartet remains one the composer’s greatest works and embeds a compositional manifesto that has influenced all “modern” quartets in its wake. Written in 1893, it wrestles with the formal expectations of the “German” quartet form which was nearly all but codified in the nineteenth century.
Composers like Borodin and Franck, however, were beginning to splinter the harmonic and formal framework in the 1880s. Debussy’s contribution, though, was a true milestone in the history of quartet literature. Ravel’s exotic Quartet in F Major leaps from Debussy’s already elevated artistic plateau, and becomes both a companion work and successor.
The first movement embodies all the melodic, harmonic, and motivic material found throughout the work, thus reflecting Cesar Franck’s cyclic techniques. The main theme is rhythmically ambiguous, inflecting both duple and triple rhythms. In its sonata framework, the majestic and insistent music contrasts G minor and D minor sections. The second movement is a scherzo, transforming the main theme into a playful rejoinder to chordal pizzicato which again bounce between duple and triple time. Here, I would have wanted more accord between the first violin and cello as I thought the ensemble was less decisive and a bit tepid.
However, the third movement stands alone as one of the most beautiful works Debussy composed. In its tripartite form (D flat major – C sharp minor – D flat major), the return of the opening theme, as a rapturous song for first violin was, perhaps, the very high point of the afternoon as it parts with its ascent to a high A Flat. Ms. Belcea’s soaring line seemed boundless. This was gorgeous and luminous playing by all. In the final movement, our motif is heard in greater agitation, fragmented, with some elegant harmonic sequences. After an introduction, the movement, built on nervous stretti, delivers a grand climax, ending in G major.
The Belcea Quartet is one of the world’s finest quartets. The fare this evening had an odd way of highlighting the Debussy as a sort of musical blend of Beethoven’s expressivity and formality, with the painful and plaintive desolations of Bartók’s bleak world in the face of questioning time itself. From beginning to end, the audience was transfixed throughout this memorable performance.