Innovative as ever, the Belcea Quartet and the Wigmore Hall brought us a profoundly moving, deeply serious evening of late works, united by their complexity, depth and structure. The interpretation of Beethoven’s late quartets tends to divide music lovers along certain lines – do you like them unashamedly Romantic, or ascetic and reserved? If the former, you were probably raised on the Busch Quartet, and if the latter, the Alban Berg. The Belcea’s style is definitely closer to the latter, although not lacking in emotional commitment, and Thomas Quasthoff’s distinctive timbre is well matched to theirs.
Beethoven wrote that Op. 131 had been “cobbled together out of various things stolen from here and there,” – he was alluding to an inappropriate request that his work had to be original, yet there is a feeling of the episodic about this work, played as an unbroken series of seven movements. The Belcea quartet relished all its challenges, from the endless Adagio to the tremendous final chords; if you like your Beethoven edgy and ‘modern’ then this interpretation is the one for you.
The performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words was a highly unusual one, the work’s seven central panels interspersed with readings from the great German Romantic poets. It proved to be a very engrossing experience, with Quasthoff’s sonorous tones and distinctive tremolo interpreting these poems of loss, lament and desolation as though they had been written solely to be so presented. The first Sonata (Largo) was perhaps the most evocative, the quartet’s intensity finely echoed by Quasthoff’s gripping exhortation of Novalis’ ‘Es gibt so bange Zeiten’ (These are such fearful times).
For some of us, it was frustrating to hear Rückert’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’ spoken when our memories of hearing it sung by Quasthoff were still vivid, but that strangeness dissipated with the final Sonata, given a searing performance by the quartet and bringing the evening to a forceful conclusion with a powerful reading of Heine’s ‘In mein gar zu dunkles Leben’ (In my so very dark life). Sombre words and music, yet life-enhancing.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.