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Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Art of Melancholy

THE BELCEA QUARTET opened the Union College Concert Series last Thursday (Oct. 16) with a trio of quartets, big-master pieces that offered no plangent threats to nervous ears – but that rewarded attentive ears (or at least my sensationalist-seeking ears) with compelling insights into the comparative worlds of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Belcea Quartet; photo by Ronald Knapp
Mozart’s Quartet in F Major, K. 590, kicked things off with the cruelest of opening passages: three measures of unison playing. Four instruments ascending slowly up the home key’s tonic triad, then coursing quickly down the scale. What we heard was so sure-footed as to sound unremarkable. It wasn’t, and the lush tone suggested by those unison notes shortly blossomed into a high-spirited conversation between violin and cello, as viola and the other violin sang an accompaniment of stuttering eighth notes.

Violist Krzysztof Chorzelski leaned in a little towards Axel Schacher (second violin) as they gave shape to these passages, as if there were something conspiratorial about what they were up to. Perhaps there was: Corina Belcea’s violin phrases seemed to tease responses from Antoine Lederlin’s cello, and the opening movement as a whole came across as a duet for the outer voices.

Not so with the Andante that followed, in which a version of that stuttering accompaniment became the opening motif. The performers gave such transparency to this (and what followed) that the clarity of Mozart’s writing was more obvious than often is the case – there was a distinct identity to each of the voices, with even the middle two flashing with of ambition and wit.

But this is a work that resists too much in the way of interpretive nuance. There’s a way of applying rubato to phrase that is meant to demonstrate special insight or an excess of emotion, but it can cloud your purpose if, as this ensemble did in the fourth movement, it’s applied without discretion.

The concluding Allegro is built on a phrase of four sixteenth notes, with two such phrases to a measure. At climactic moments, Mozart turns them into three-note phrases that work against the rhythmic pulse to an amusing effect, but they need to be played in strict time, not launched with a sudden slowing, in order to work.

This interpretive approach works far better with Beethoven, even early, Mozart-inflected Beethoven, as characterizes his Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3, the third of six in his first published set but the first to be written – and one of the gentlest of the bunch.

Yet what became clear is that, while Mozart’s quartet sounded like a happy gathering of voices, Beethoven’s was its own distinct entity, something greater than the voices themselves. But this only works when the voices are willing to subsume themselves to this entity, which was no problem for this ensemble.

Impressive slow movements are a feature of early Beethoven works, and this one was no exception, its longing propelled by the skillful use of dotted-note figures. Comparing it to Beethoven’s later quartets does it a disservice; it benefits most from being compared, as here, to the best of Mozart 

Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet is so-named because the second movement is based on a theme from the incidental music Schubert wrote for the so-named play. But that’s in the second movement, and we’re drained by the time we get there by the opening movement’s nervous plaint.

If Beethoven’s quartet was an entity greater than the sum of its parts, then Schubert’s goes even further by presenting a fifth entity: Melancholy, a spirit of yearning whose ongoing distress is only temporarily ameliorated by the “Rosamunde” movement. The work opens with a sinewy figure in the second violin against which the first sings a tune as sad as anything Schubert ever wrote (and that’s saying something!), which viola and cello jutter ominously.

A bit of that second-violin figure starts the third movement, its minor second gaining a half-step but still sounding as if we’re heading somewhere not emotionally pretty. By the time we hit the sunshine of the finale’s A-Major theme, we’re ready for any measure of pleasant feeling, and it’s delivered in the upward swoops that sound throughout.

The journey from Mozart to Schubert spanned only a little over thirty years, but what a startling span of musical development! The works were shrewdly chosen to complement and build upon one another, giving us a program too satisfying to require an encore.

These are virtuoso players who have chosen the relentlessly challenging chamber-ensemble path, and (when not getting too over-interpretive), their insights and skill combined for an excellent result. 

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