The Belcea Quartet Again
They lost me on the Grosse Fuge.
Last Wednesday, as I noted a couple of posts ago, the Belcea Quartet performed excellently if eccentrically in Beethoven's Op. 127 and 130. But now, in the final concert of their scheduled Beethoven series, those eccentricities moved to the forefront and began to consume their host. Modernism does not need to be exposed or discovered in the Grosse Fuge: the piece has enough discord, enough wildness, enough rhythmic disunity of its own, and when the Belceas' tendencies in that direction were super-added to it, the result was almost a caricature, a fiendish exaggeration. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Grosse Fuge I heard at Zankel Hall on Friday night was not, to my ear, Beethoven's.
But then they won me back with Opus 131. It was a fine, sensitive performance, with a few mild oddities of timing here and there, and an extra-harsh bowstroke or two (or three), but manifesting none of the destructive willfulness the Belceas had displayed before the intermission. The four string players were attuned to every subtle passage of this remarkable piece, and they gave full and complicated attention to the numerous transitions from intensity to softness to near-silence, from melancholy to resurgence and back again. Their playing throughout was filled with delicacy and emotion, and one felt at the end (as one should always feel with Op. 131, if it is done right) that one had been through something important.
And then they capped the evening with a lovely encore, the Ländler movement from Op. 135. As the violist said in his brief introduction, they were performing this as the encore for two reasons: "One, because we didn't get to do it the other night, when the concert was canceled. And two, because Beethoven at one point thought of ending his Opus 131 with this movement, so it seemed a fitting way to end the evening." The cellist then leaned over and whispered in his ear, and the violist added: "And also because we love this movement." It showed, in their moving and rigorously restrained performance.