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 Recording of the Week  Belcea Quartet launch their Beethoven cycle

Beethoven’s String quartets are generally regarded as the cornerstone of the whole quartet repertoire. Having only really been established as a form in the late 18th century by Joseph Haydn, over the course of his life Beethoven developed and extended the form from its Classical Viennese origins into one of the most personal and profound mediums at a composer’s disposal.

His quartets divide neatly into the three generally adopted periods of his life – from the early period the opus 18 set of six quartets (1799-1800) where you can clearly hear his Classical Viennese origins, but enhanced with frequent and often sudden changes of dynamics and mood, plus extensions and deviations from the standard quartet form and structure.

Belcea Quartet
Belcea Quartet

Then the from the middle period, the three opus 59 quartets (known as the ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets) from 1806, plus the opus 74 (the ‘Harp’) and opus 95 (the ‘Serioso’) from 1809 and 1810, which are generally much richer, more dramatic, and with greater extremes of tempo, character and expression.

And finally from the late period, the opuses 127, 130 (and its original ‘Große Fuge’ ending now known as opus 133), 131, 132 and 135. Dating from 1823-26 these were some of the last works Beethoven composed and without doubt some of his greatest achievements. Highly personal, at times tender, at other times shocking, intense, beautiful, sometimes very long, and not at all easy to understand – in fact almost as if from another world. As viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski wrote last year on the Belcea Quartet’s blog “They hark back to the Gregorian Chant, Palestrina and look ahead to Stravinsky, Bartok and beyond.”

The Belcea Quartet have been performing these quartets extensively over the last couple of years and have recently finished recording the complete cycle. The first of three volumes has just been released and I’ve been enjoying it immensely. It contains eight quartets from across the three periods described above, which means you can also hear the way Beethoven’s compositional style developed and changed throughout his life.

This is really very fine quartet playing, with excellent ensemble and complete sympathy and understanding between the players. They’re not afraid to change their sound frequently and sometimes violently to best express the nature of the music, and the sweetest, most singing and beautiful tone is made all the more so when contrasted against the earthy, grainy sonority at other moments.

Tempos are well thought out (generally with his metronome marks at least in mind), and climaxes calculated and powerful whilst resisting the urge to drive too aggressively towards them. The recorded sound (live in concert) is excellent – wonderfully alive, and captures the quartet’s bold, fearless interpretations wonderfully.

So much to enjoy here, there are sound samples and a short video available via the links below. Whether you are already familiar with Beethoven’s quartets or not, this comes highly recommended. I’m told the remaining two volumes are planned for 2013. I for one can’t wait!

Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets Vol. 1

Belcea Quartet

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC