Belcea Quartet

Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 1

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The Belcea Quartet is a group far removed from the rather sober general tradition of British music-making. This box set, covering eight of Beethoven's 16 string quartets, might be called extreme Beethoven, and the beauty of extreme playing is that if the group has the technical chops to hold it together, it can be very exciting indeed. Beethoven in the eyes of the Belcea players is a contemporary individual: brash and punkish in the early quartets, tortured but not necessarily tragic in the middle ones, lofty but not necessarily spiritual in the late ones. The quartet mixes quartets from all three periods here as a nice change from stolid early-middle-late boxes. It pushes tempos to perilous levels but keeps the music on track and organized into larger structures. In this set, sample the first-movement of the most violent quartet of all, the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, for an idea of what the Belcea is up to. It blazes through the opening F minor theme at top speed but then manages to ratchet down the tension level sharply for the major second theme so that it sounds like a real lyrical interlude, even at high speed. This is difficult to pull off, and other quartets that emphasize the violence of this movement often generate a perfunctory second theme. Throughout, there are small, well-considered, exhaustively rehearsed details. The early Op. 18 quartets have an obstreperous quality, especially in the scherzos and minuets, that seems to fit very well with what is known of the young Beethoven's personality. In the Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131, the Belcea sets aside any exotica for a deeply transcendent reading that progresses inexorably through the seven movements from a solemn opening fugue to the ethereal decorations of the end. This is a wonderful half of a Beethoven set, recorded very well in live performance, and if it stirs up controversy in an often moribund repertory, that's all to the good.

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