Belcea Quartet

Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets

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As a dynamic young string ensemble, the Belcea Quartet recorded the complete string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven in what seemed like record time, releasing them in 2012 and 2013 in two separate volumes. This 2014 box set from Zig-Zag Territoires combines those volumes and gives listeners a chance to judge their playing from beginning to end. The quartets appear in a mixed order, though, just as they did previously, so expectations of a predictable, orderly progression from the early Classical works to the late masterpieces are dispensed with. Instead, the Belcea Quartet takes pains to interpret the quartets in unpredictable ways, giving each part and movement a strong character and providing an edginess that maintains a high level of suspense. In a sense, the early quartets are punchy and brash, the middle quartets are knotty and serious, and the late ones are elevated but not treated with excessive reverence. Tempos overall are brisk and the tone is sometimes brusque and even rough, creating a harshness and tension that may be too strong for some ears. This is most pronounced in the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, which is played with a manic frenzy that tangles the counterpoint to the point of incomprehensibility and makes the work unnecessarily grotesque. That being said, there are movements that are transcendent in their tranquility and beauty, such as the Cavatina of Op. 130, the opening fugue of Op. 131, and the Lento assai of Op. 135. This is a set for adventurous listeners who value the element of surprise in Beethoven, a characteristic that is perhaps the most characteristic aspect of his music.

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