Belcea Quartet

Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 2

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Because the Belcea Quartet has divided the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven between two box sets, and arranged them so that early, middle, and late works appear in each volume, newcomers to this music may find the program a bit arbitrary and slightly complicated. Undoubtedly, the Belcea wants listeners to approach these landmark works with new ears, and to prevent the expectations that come with time-honored groupings. Hearing the three "Razumovsky" quartets played together, for example, or the Grosse Fuge with its original parent work, Op. 130, listeners might lose that most essential feature in Beethoven, the element of surprise. And the Belcea is quite good at surprises. The group takes pains to articulate the quartets in unpredictable ways, giving each part a strong character, accentuating passages that are often smoothed over, and providing an edginess that maintains suspense. Tempos are on the brisk side, and the string tone is sometimes brusque and even rough, with a kind of grit that is almost harsh. The tension is at its most pronounced in the Grosse Fuge, which is played with a manic frenzy that tangles the counterpoint to the point of incomprehensibility and makes the work unnecessarily grotesque. However, this is an extreme case, and the remaining works are played with less aggressiveness and more humanity. By far the loveliest playing is in the slow movements, particularly in the tender Cavatina of Op. 130, and the sublime Lento assai of Op. 135. Still, taken as a whole, the Belcea's interpretations are bracing and vigorous by most standards, and listeners should sample this set extensively before purchasing.

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