Friday 20 June 2008

What happened to the other three bagatelles - The Belcea Quartet and friends

I've been a fan of the Belcea Quartet ever since I first came across them at the Edinburgh Festival. They had something of a tendency to play rather epic programmes in their Queen's Hall concerts, which often ran past 1pm. Programmes that might include big quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or perhaps Schubert and Bartok. Indeed, I remember one of the latter when one member of Edinburgh's conservative listening public came out and said "Thank god for the Schubert", the Bartok had been exceptional.

The last time I saw them was in the 2006. Corina Belcea-Fischer was either just about to have, or had just had, her baby and was unable to play. The rest of the ensemble played one of the works (a Britten quartet with an oboist) and a substitute quartet the other. However, what always marked the group out for me, aside from the standard of their playing, was a sense of vitality and something of a firebrand quality. It exists too on their recording of the Britten quartets. Not, however, on their recent survey of Bartok's, which left me a little cold, and which is why I haven't booked to hear them do these at Edinburgh this summer.

Monday's concert was to be the first time I had seen them all together since, along with new cellist Antoine Lederlin. They started out with Schubert's quartet in A minor, D804. Now, it probably didn't help that for various reasons I was a little tired going in, but I found their account altogether too pretty and nice, precious almost. Where was the attack I had known them for, and which I know on The Lindsays' recording? Instead, here was something altogether dreamy. I wonder if this is representative of a new sound and direction for the group. If so, broadly, I think I preferred them before. Certainly the approach doesn't work for Bartok, though I can see that it might for Schubert and would want to withhold judgement until hearing again, as I think tiredness and expectations would not make it fair to do so now.

However, the Schubert was followed by the Belcea's first friend: Imogen Cooper playing Bela Bartok's Fourteen Bagatelles, sz.50, well, all except numbers seven to nine. A friend of the family, with whom Ms Cooper was staying, informs us the reason was time: the three run to about eleven minutes and the concert ran over two hours already. Their exclusion was a great shame, since the other eleven were brilliant. There was an energy and an excitement, and a comedy. A check on Amazon indicates she hasn't recorded these - someone get her to a studio post haste! The BBC, in their infinite wisdom, are broadcasting only highlights of this concert, such is their genius they are able to select these before it takes place. They have not picked this, wrongly.

After the interval Laura Samuel, the quartet's second violin, was ushered to a seat just in front of us in the auditorium: the second half was to be Schubert's quintet in A major, D667 The Trout. The three remaining Belceas and Cooper were joined by bassist Duncan McTier. At least initially the ensemble didn't quite seem to gel. The Belceas still seemed in rather relaxed mode, whereas Cooper was more up for it. Indeed, it struck me that one problem with the Trout, despite its regularity on the concert programme, is that it will always be performed by a scratch ensemble, which is normally a less than ideal situation. However, their styles meshed better as the work progressed and the finale was quite lovely, if marred by the applause that followed the false finish, it will be interesting to hear whether Radio 3 edits this out. Interestingly, a few years ago the Belceas recorded this with Ades, and seemed more energetic then.

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