The Belceas, At Last
Mother Nature appears to love President Obama. She sent him a tropical storm to ruin the Republican convention. When that didn't prove sufficient, she provided a hurricane to win him the support of Governor Christie and Michael Bloomberg (not to mention all the needy citizens who were helped with surprising rapidity after the storm). Finally, she delayed the cold, wet, snowy weather by a single day to allow east-coast Democratic voters, who are notoriously less weather-resistant than Republicans, to make it to the polls on Election Day.
She has not manifested the same fondness for the Belcea Quartet. The first of their three Beethoven concerts at Carnegie's Zankel Hall was canceled last Saturday in the aftermath of Sandy. Their second concert, which took place last night, required audience members to trek through a horrific Nor'easter (I know, it sounds quaint, but it is really just a massive dose of snow, wind, and rain, all mixed foully together) to get to the concert hall, with the result that Zankel was only half full.
This is a shame, since the Belceas are one of the most interesting young quartets to come out of Britain (or, for that matter, Europe as a whole) in recent decades. They are vigorous and at the same delicate in their approach. They have a strong feeling about the music they are playing, and they translate that feeling into practice. In last night's program--consisting of two remarkable late Beethoven quartets, Op. 127 and Op. 130--they manifested skill at every level. The quiet parts of Op. 127, in particular, were so entrancing that the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath; you could have heard a pin drop in the silences.
If Mother Nature has an excuse in her unfair prejudice against them, it would be because there is something, well--I hate to use this word, for fear it will be misunderstood, but-- "unnatural" in their approach. I don't mean this as a criticism, exactly, for the strangeness, the eeriness, is partly what gives their playing its strength. They are eccentric almost to the point of willfulness in their interpretations. The results are never outlandish--both 127 and 130 were recognizably themselves on Wednesday night, with all their usual delights--but the Belceas do something with timing and particularly with dynamics that makes the quartets sound like nothing you've ever heard in anyone else's recordings. In places these four players are the very opposite of cohesive: your ear finds itself picking up the underlying cello or second violin line almost as a separate theme you've never noticed. This is Beethoven's wild inventiveness pushed to its furthest extreme, the quartet as break-out music. Yet the result is not always violent: the Belceas' dynamic range is such that their quiet portions are surely the softest passages I've ever heard in these string quartets. At times you feel yourself leaning forward to catch the slightest puff of sound, and it almost disappears before you've heard it. The method is intriguing, even captivating, and it is certainly Beethoven; it's just not at all what anyone was expecting. That may be all to the good, but I will have to wait for Friday's performance of the tremendous Op. 131 to be sure.
(I realize, by the way, that in the course of these daily blogs I have become as much weather reporter as arts critic. I apologize, but it seemed unavoidable: the environment was just too overwhelming. Here's hoping that, in the final dozen or so days of my postings, the arts will fight back at full strength.)