After a long period in which they seemed to go out of fashion, complete cycles of Beethoven’s symphonies, concertos and other works are back in. In the past three months alone the autumn season in London has included the complete symphonies by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Barbican, the sonatas at St Luke’s, and the Belcea Quartet’s ongoing cycle of the string quartets at Wigmore Hall.
Ten years after coming to notice as winner of the Gramophone award for Best Debut Recording, the Belcea Quartet clearly feels the time is right. Beyond the Wigmore, its complete Beethoven string quartet cycle is being performed in Liverpool, Gateshead and Hamburg, with series of concerts also planned in Austria, Sweden, Italy and the US.
Just as the Leipzig orchestra did at the Barbican, the Belcea Quartet is making a big statement about where it stands in the line-up of chamber music groups past and present. Less wildly strenuous than the Lindsay String Quartet, whose every encounter with Beethoven was another epic battle, less glowing than the Takács or tonally rich than the Brandis, the Belcea Quartet occupies a position somewhere in the centre. But so great are the contrasts they find there that these four players make the centre ground a challenging place to be.
Their cycle is now in midstream. This programme opened with the Quartet in B Flat, Op 18 No.6, one of the early half dozen in which Beethoven polished his skills, and the Belcea sounded perfectly in period, cultivated, deeply thoughtful where appropriate. But then, returning for the F Minor Quartet, Op 95, the players were transformed. Suddenly, the sound was more intense, at times almost glassily on edge, and the playing went at white heat.
That is the single quality that most marks out the Belcea’s Beethoven: their determination to embrace as wide a range of expression as possible. In the E Flat Quartet, Op 127, they showed they can be as unanimous and perfectly drilled as the impeccable Emersons, but here the heavenly slow movement – a set of variations where Beethoven is breathing the same rarefied air as in the Ninth Symphony – felt more spontaneous and touching. The rest of their cycle is highly recommended.