A rich and varied programme from The Belcea Quartet at the Menuhin Hall, Surrey, featuring music by Mozart, Janáček, and Mendelssohn, was performed as part of the Investec International Music Festival earlier this month.
Founded in 1994, while still students at the Royal College of Music, the quartet takes its name from its first violinist, Corina Belcea-Fisher. The other members include Axel Schacher on second violin, Krzysztof Chorzelski on viola and Antoine Lederlin on cello.
From the outset Belcea-Fisher stands out. As the group’s only woman, she wears a red-splashed dress; while the men are all in black. Her visual prominence is reflected in Mozart’s score. First violin takes centre stage in the spritely String Quartet in B flat major KV 589. She leads, the others follow. Skipping on ahead, the others play mimic and catch up.
Composed in 1789, towards the end of his career, Mozart gifted the piece to the amateur cellist and King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. Perhaps this explains the strikingly straightforward cello part. Lederlin’s dutiful cello provides a plodding — exact — bass. Simplicity charms. But the quartet does not overlook the score’s subtle sophistication. Beyond the first movement, Chorzelski’s viola and Schacher’s violin grow in assertiveness; rising and falling with grace.
Solo becomes duet; duet becomes trio; trio becomes quartet — they seem to race to the finish. As the score demands, Belcea-Fisher comes in a vivacious, flirtatious, first.
Moving swiftly into a startlingly different time, and mood, to Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1. The intense score is inspired by Tolstoy’s even more intense novella, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’. It tells the story of a jealous husband who stabs his wife to death after her affair with a violinist.
Janáček composed the work very quickly in 1923. ‘Con motto’ — with motion — is the recurring phrase in each of the movement’s titles — and the group put it to good use.
Bows fly in opposite directions. Violent sawing, followed by teetering touches. Unlike Mozart, Janáček writes more democratically — each instrument carries equal weight. Unsteady flourishes interrupt lines of thought. It’s a strangely incoherent work. A flutter here, a stutter there; a smudging, grudging dissonance.
Angry chords are anchored in grit. Lederlin’s rumbling cello is highly effective — leaving the audience on edge. By the time of the climax, one almost struggles to believe this sound comes from only four instruments.
In the final section of the concert, loss strikes at the heart of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F Minor Op. 80. Written in 1847 as a ‘Requiem for Fanny’ (his sister) this is no solemn farewell, but a fast flurry of grief. Yet within the piece lies a curious paradox: it is at once exhibitionist and introverted.
The internal texture of Schacher and Chorzelski often provide the melodic meat. Belcea-Fisher’s wild cadenzas are nicely contrasted with moments of restraint. And in the last few bars, her first violin keeps rising as if the soul of dear Fanny were soaring towards heaven. As fate would have it, the composer died soon after.
It’s little wonder that The Belcea Quartet is considered one of the finest in England.