Belcea Quartet Plays Late Beethoven at Duke

After the exciting, edge-blurring jazzgrass music of the Bela Fleck/Marcus Roberts Trio quartet, heard earlier in the week, the strictly classical Belcea Quartet initially seemed…a little staid. Fresh from Carnegie Hall, the Belcea played an all-Beethoven program of late works, as the quartet comes to the end of a long cycle of study and performance of Beethoven’s entire quartet oeuvre. The Chamber Arts Society/Duke Performances presentation in Reynolds Theater was well attended, but not by adventurous youth. Perhaps that accounted for the notable lack of buzzy anticipation.

Belcea Quartet, photo Duke Performances.

Led by the redoubtable Romanian-born Corina Belcea (b. 1975; she founded the quartet while still a student at London’s Royal College of Music, and is its only remaining original member), the program began with String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130. This is the piece that originally ended with what quickly became known as the Grosse Fugue (op. 133)–and that is how the Belcea rendered it. Beethoven’s friends told him at the time, the Grosse Fugue overwhelms the first five movements, and should be replaced with something more suitable. He did that, but we were privileged to hear for ourselves why it was a good idea. The Grosse Fugue is so magnificent and complex, it is much better off alone.

The playing initially seemed arid as No. 13 unfolded. The sound was very clear, but dry somehow, and with an uncomfortable edge. In his review of the first of the two Carnegie Hall concerts, which included op. 130, James Oestreich described Belcea’s violin as having an “astringent edge,” which seems accurate–clean, but with a puckering, drawing quality, rather than an enveloping warmth. Yet when the Grosse Fugue began, that very slight tightness gave way to great flexibility as the strings wound along the fantastic routes of the motifs as they lead and follow, reverse and cross each other throughout their transformations. While the mind deploys itself among the patterns, the heart goes straight to the mysteriously emotional quality of the music. Where the playing of op. 130 felt held back, over-ordered, that of the Grosse Fugue expressed within the music’s intricate structure all the freedom of intense familiarity.

As grand as the Grosse Fugue is, it is a puny thing next to the enormous String Quartet no. 14 in C-sharp Minor, op. 131, which the Belcea gave all the passion reserved from No. 13. There’s no neat classicism here, with four or five easily definable movements. No. 14 has seven parts, but they’re not separable. Beethoven was totally deaf when he wrote this–yet he put in so much sound that it is hard to believe that a mere four stringed instruments make it all. He completed it in 1826, a year before his death–but it sounds almost modern (pre-minimalism modern), as well as tortured, transcendent and capital R Romantic. It takes up your soul, bellowing and grappling, and wraps it like Ulysses wrapped the bag of winds. Then, with a few swift final chords, the cords are slashed and the spirit rises roaring.

No encore is possible after this, or even desirable. The musicians could barely stand to bow, and after the third curtain call, we all staggered out, replete with music.

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