The Belcea Quartet spotlighted

It was about 25 years ago, I think, that I first became acquainted with the then very young Belcea Quartet. They had then recently made their debut in the Rising Stars series in the Concertgebouw’s Kleine Zaal, the programme included string quartets by Schubert and Thomas Adès. I also got the opportunity to speak at length with (the members of) the quartet.

© Ronald Knapp

At eleven o’clock in the morning, I rang the doorbell at hotel Verdi in Amsterdam, where the quartet was staying. The intention was to have a bite to eat with Corina Belcea and Krzysztof Chorzelski. And to talk about the quartet, of course.

Unfortunately, Corina had fallen ill so they suggested they’d stay in the hotel breakfast room.

Corina, frail and girlish, coughing heavily, and looking so pitiful that I wonder how she will be able to play that night.

And yet she leads the conversation, just as she leads the quartet – very briskly and confidently.

Corina Belcea was born in Romania in 1975. She won a few violin competitions, including Yehudi Menuhin’s, which had earned her a scholarship to the music school of the same name in London.
Why did she choose to play quartet and not a solo career?

“In the Yehudi Menuhin music school where I started studying in 1991, chamber music was the main item on the agenda. Everyone was doing it, so I was too. And I loved it.”

“When I started my studies at the Royal College in 1994, I decided to start a string quartet with three friends from my school days. After a year and a half, exactly a week before an important competition, our viola player dropped out. Then I asked Krzysztof, who was my best friend, if he was up to the challenge. He was a violinist at the time and had never played even a single note on the viola.”

Did it take a long time to learn to play the viola?
Chorzelski, laughing: “I’m still learning!”

Their repertoire includes a lot of modern music. Not that they are going to specialise in that, but at a concert they want to play at least one quartet from the 20th century. And they order new works, one per season, which they then actually perform. For instance, they have performed five compositions written especially for them, including Two movements for String Quartet by Simenon ten Holt, which they love. Very expressive.

And Thomas Adès’ quartet, which they will play later that evening?
“Oh, but that one is already quite a few years old! Adès was only 22 at the time but the work is really unprecedented and so incredibly beautiful. We consider it one of the greatest works in the modern repertoire.”

“The composer himself is also an extraordinary person, very inspiring. A few times we have played with him, and a while back we recorded Schubert’s Piano Quintet together (Warner Classics 5576642)

They always choose their repertoire together, “democratically”.
“We almost always agree with each other. Besides, we can’t play something, which we don’t like, anyway”.
What do they like most?
“Schubert. Beethoven. Mozart. And Janaček.”

And Shostakovich?

“Hmmm… Let’s say we’re not there quite yet”

It took a few years but by now Shostakovich has also become well known to the Belceas. In the previous few years, they have played just about all his string quartets live but never put his work on CD before.

And now they have!
For Belgian Alpha, they have recorded the third string quartet and, reinforced by Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewsk, the piano quintet, and the result is undoubtedly excellent but with a few caveats.

The piano quintet dates from 1940. Its premiere, by the Beethoven Quartet with the composer himself at the piano, was greeted very enthusiastically by all. It earned Shostakovich the Stalin Prize, plus a considerable sum of money.

How different things were with the third string quartet! Again, it was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, in 1946. The work was initially censored by the Soviet regime. Critics found the note with which the piece ends ‘ambiguous’ and Shostakovich was even accused of hiding coded messages against Stalin in it!

Shostakovich String Quartet no.3

The Belcea Quartet’s performance is milder than what I am used to. It’s not that the sting has been taken out, as the bitterness is still very prominent. But now you can listen to it several times in a row, without your ears getting tired. In a manner of speaking, that is.

Even the quintet, surely one of Shostakovich’s ‘sunniest’ compositions, sounds even more pleasant than usual to my ears. Incredibly beautiful, yes, but what I miss a little is the undertone – always present with Shostakovich – that makes it less pleasant for the listener.

Peanuts really. The four strings and the pianist feel each other very well, forging it into a beautiful, homogeneous whole. Without a doubt an asset!

‘Prehistoric’ Ligeti brilliantly performermed

For me, Leoš Janáček’s string quartets form the absolute opus magnus of the genre. Call me sentimental, but at the very first bars of number two my eyes fill with tears and I am really swept up in all the emotions. Over the years, many excellent versions have appeared on the market, of which the DG recording, by the then still very young Hagen Quartet, is the most precious to me.

It is not the first time that Belcea tried their hand at the string quartets: already in 2001, they recorded them for Zig Zag Territoires (ZZT 010701). I was not exactly over the moon then, somehow I did not feel they got to the core of the music. Still, I cherish the recording: I am a real ‘Belcea fan’.

I find the recording on Alpha Classis refreshing. The tempi are a bit fast, but that does not hurt. The players somewhat control their emotions, so that a lot of underground tension can be felt. Nice.

But what makes the CD a real must is the performance of Ligeti’s first string quartet. The Hungarian master composed it in 1954, two years later he had to flee the country, after which he referred to this composition as a ‘prehistoric Ligeti’.

Prehistoric or not: I think it is genius. It keeps you nailed to your seat and you can’t help but listen: preferably with all doors and windows closed, so you will not be disturbed.
The string quartet, which for a good reason bears the name Métamorphoses nocturnes (yes, call it programmatic), is not performed very often, but of all the performances I have heard so far, the Belceas’ is definitely at the top.