It is fifteen years since the members of the Belcea Quartet met at the Royal College of Music in London. They've covered swathes of repertoire, recorded prolifically and worked with many composers. Now, they are moving on from their long association with EMI, which had made them one of the most recognisable names in the string-quartet world. With a new record label, they've a new project: all of Beethoven's string quartets, performed across Europe over the course of a year.
September 2011, the Belcea musicians are in London, rehearsing for the first programme in the series, when I speak to violist Krzysztof Chorzelski. He is one of the founding members, named after leader, Corina Belcea-Fisher. His roots are in Poland, but the life of a successful musician is international, and fresh in both his mind and mine is the recent performance of Schubert's String Quintet, with Valentin Erben (ex-Alban Berg Quartet) as second cellist. The performance in July as a late-night BBC Prom was an outstanding surprise, the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall unexpectedly reflecting the scale of Schubert's hour-long meditation on life and fate. The musicians deftly adapted to the cavernous acoustic. Best of all was the total silence of the audience, not always the way of things at the Proms. “I was extremely touched as a performer by the silence. I remember very well it was astounding for us. In the Adagio it felt as though the lights were down and nobody was there. The slow movement requires such stillness from us and if there's noise in the hall it can very often be disturbed. In fact, I noticed it because I sat in the orchestral concert [earlier] that evening and it was very noisy, the audience was very noisy and I was already thinking, fearing, what was going to happen with the Schubert Quintet.” But he needn't have worried: “it was breathtaking for us to feel the silence.”
I ask Krzysztof about preparing to play in such a seemingly unsuitable venue. “We rehearsed not really thinking that we're going to play it at the Albert Hall. When we play in a hall very often one of us goes to hear what is coming out so always on the day of the concert we make a judgement based on the acoustics of the hall”. It's vital, however, not to overcompensate for the space. “We just felt that the only thing that was needed was certainly not to increase the dynamics. Observing the dynamics, especially the lowest dynamics, is essential in this piece, but the triple pianissimos that are there, they need to be just a little more focused. So I suppose you could say the bow contact needs to be a little more defined than you would perhaps have in the Wigmore Hall. But that doesn't mean playing louder, it just means a bit more focused and I think trying to compromise these small dynamics would be defeat for the music.”
The Schubert concerts continue, punctuating the Belcea’s Beethoven schedule. The recording of the Schubert Quintet, however, is already some way behind them. “It's about two years ago. To be honest, we recorded it earlier than we would have wanted. It was all to do with the way things happen with the record company, meaning that EMI were very keen for us to record it early so that the big run of concerts that we had later on that year was already promoting the recording and when we had our run of concerts EMI was not proactive at all in promoting it. At some concerts the promoters would say to us 'what a wonderful performance, have you thought of recording it?' So this is another reason why we are no longer with EMI.”
The Belcea Quartet has travelled full circle, returning to Zig Zag Territoires, the French label that issued its very first disc. “We like very much the people who run it. Most importantly they give us total freedom and when I say that I mean that our EMI team, our producer and sound engineer, remain with us so it will only be the label that will change and hopefully the rest will remain the same, apart from the fact that there will be more live recordings than there have been so far.”
Recordings made at the Beethoven concerts to come will form the basis for the complete edition of the cycle. The first run of these concerts, given in cities around Europe, establishes the pattern of programmes to come: a quartet from the Opus18 set (six works); a 'middle' quartet drawn from the three 'Rasumovsky' Quartets, the 'Harp' and the 'Serioso'; and one from the five venerated 'late'-period works. The first programme places the 'Harp' with Opus 18/Number 3 (thought to be the first that Beethoven completed) and culminates with Opus 130. In this first programme, it is to be played with the replacement finale composed by Beethoven at the request of his publisher to take the place of the fearsome Grosse Fuge. “We wanted to frame the whole cycle with a performance of Opus 130, twice; the first time with the replacement finale (which could be described as a Hollywood ending) and then in the last concert we play it with the most uncompromising piece of music that Beethoven wrote, the Grosse Fuge so that it becomes the absolute pinnacle of the cycle.”
What effect does the change of finale have on this work? “It certainly becomes a different piece of music. With the lighter spirited replacement finale the centre of gravity shifts to the 'Cavatina', whereas with the Grosse Fuge it is almost difficult to talk about a centre of gravity. The Grosse Fuge was, I believe, meant to be a sort of nuclear explosion aimed at threatening the very idea of structure and gravity. To say, therefore, that the Grosse Fuge is the climax of the whole work is a euphemism; perhaps only the finale of the Ninth Symphony mirrors this situation with its proportions and the force of its impact, however widely different this impact is.”
Is the placing of these three string quartets together significant? “In one sense the combination of the ‘Harp’ and the Opus 130 without the Fugue in the first programme of our cycle gains some – I must admit: unintended – significance. Both works seem to be part of Beethoven's ongoing experiment with the idea of anti-climax. The overgrown scherzo of the ‘Harp’ assumes a surprisingly significant role. It is in the dark key of C minor and it is characterised by an excessive number of repetitions. It also features a manic trio which on the page looks like a piece of very academic and solemn fugal writing straight from an oratorio, but here it is accelerated beyond any recognition. It is almost as if the composer's intention is to plant a seed of doubt in the listener: Will this piece ever end? Is this a trap? Has the composer gone mad? – not the only example of such device in Beethoven's music. When finally an exit is found, on the other side we have a movement of unassuming lightness – not unlike the replacement finale of Opus 130. It is these proportions that give us this uneasy sense of an anti-climax. Getting to know Beethoven better and better, it is difficult to imagine that this is a result of his miscalculation – more a sign of his playing with common expectations and poking fun at convention. I think that the fact that to this day we are puzzled by this would delight Beethoven.
“There is a moment in the supposedly well-behaved replacement finale of Opus 130 where in the early stages of its development a very serene and gracious new idea is introduced. The transition back to the main material initially seems to follow convention and just as we are expecting the reassuring return of the opening idea, a brusque ff unison is played – brutally mocking the movement's main motif – and then a brilliant fugato unfolds. It feels like Beethoven has built this sudden jolt into the piece as a purely theatrical device, a joke at the audience's expense: ‘for those of you who by now have completely lost the thread and are not with us anymore, time to wake up!’. It is moments like this that show so vividly that Beethoven took delight at playing his subversive game with us and that this game was not always a very high-brow one.”
And while attention is focused on Beethoven, the Belcea Quartet has been welcoming a new second violinist to the fold. Axel Schacher stepped into the position vacated by Laura Samuel, herself a founding member of the quartet. I ask Krzysztof if the process has been a difficult one. “There are always turbulent times at first and we've been working with Axel for over a year now and we've never rehearsed as much in our lives. It's been absolutely wonderful to do that because it was absolutely necessary, and loosing Laura was an enormous shock to the system. But I think we've made a very good choice and we are looking for as much input from Axel as possible.” And it's a repeated process, for in 2006 cellist Antoine Lederlin replaced Alasdair Tait. “When we were looking for a new cellist we were very conscious that we were looking for someone that wouldn't just fit in. That wasn't the idea because, anyway, changing a member in a string quartet is a disruptive and, to a certain extent, painful experience. There's no airbrushing it. There's bound to be a change so you might as well embrace it. It was a sort of defining moment because we were also able to find for ourselves what it is that we want, what it is that we have, what it is that we feel we're lacking and what we want that one person to bring into the group.”
For the future Beethoven looms on the horizon for some time to come, but there are diversions: the Belcea Quartet takes part in the first performance of Thomas Larcher's Piano Quintet at Wigmore Hall in November, but in the long term a change of direction beckons. “To be honest, Shostakovich is not at the centre of our lives [but] we are planning a Shostakovich cycle in about four or five years. The next time we focus on one composer it will be Shostakovich.” An enticing prospect indeed, but in the meantime one of the greatest of all musical cycles is to be explored and enjoyed by audiences around the continent.
Belcea Quartet at Wigmore Hall, Monday 4 October 2011 and live on BBC Radio 3