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Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 3 ) • Belcea Quartet & Thomas Quasthoff

Not the Last Word in Last Words

String quartets that are named after their first violinist stereotypically come across as a string trio with a solo violinist on attachment. That’s not how the Belcea Quartet foursome sounds on some of their recordings (hitherto EMI, now ZigZag), but they certainly did on this occasion. In their case the trio consists of three men in red-trimmed, black-on-black polka dot pajama clown costumes and a very leading lady—the Quartet’s name-giving Corina—in bright magenta and sporting offspring not far from the hatching date.

>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 1 ) • An Introduction
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 2 ) • Prégardien Père et Fils
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 4 ) • Belcea Quartet & Till Fellner
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 5 ) • Diana Damrau & Xavier de Maistre
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 6 ) • Lemony Bostridge, Lascivious Röschmann
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 7 ) • Hagen Quartett I

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W.G.Mozart, String Quartets K465 & 499,
Belcea Quartet

That 1+3 style wasn’t so obvious in the transparent opening Allegro of Mozart’s Hoffmeister Quartet K499—which managed flawless ensemble work, four individual voices, and avoided daintiness. But the front-heavy domination emerged during the Menuetto, which was frightfully earnest as the inner voices got lost. The heavy Adagio did not bode all that well for seven more Adagios to follow, in the form of Haydn’s Seven Last Words in the second half. The Quartet’s constant tuning between movements is a bit of a nuisance, surely more affectation than strict necessity.

A waggish friend once called Haydn’s work, well lovely though it is, “surely Haydn’s most boring piece and clearly intended to turn people off Christianity.” I want to disagree, but whenever I hear it, I’m reminded of this barb with thorns of truth. That being so, it’s not a bad idea at all to loosen the structure up with non-musical interludes… as it would have been in its intended performance (if “loosen” is the right word): With Sermons, reflections on Jesus’ suffering, then in Cadiz—poems on this occasion in Schwarzenberg.

Picture © & courtesy Schubertiade GmbH. Detail; click to see entire picture.

Not such a good idea (except, presumably, from a marketing perspective) was handing these poems to ex-baritone Thomas Quasthoff to read, who happened to be in Schwarzenberg already, for a series of master classes. If God shoveled an unseemly amount of talent unto Quasthoff, he certainly focused it well on singing, with little or nothing to spare for the recitation of poetry. Whether Hölderlin or Novalis or Heine or Tieck or Rückert or Eichendorff (particularly grating), the ductus was that of an eager student in his most achingly sincere, poetry-reciting mode, except with the voice of a honeyed God… which made its use to indifferent effect only more obvious. Quasthoff was surely well prepared and acutely aware of his texts and their nuance… all the same it sounded as though he was sight-reading them, carefully avoiding any hint of humor.  A writer next to me efficiently filled these lacunae wikipedia-ing The Seven Last Words and scribbling the newly gained information neatly into the program’s margins. I thought of asking him for a match of tic-tac-toe, but concert etiquette—well and keenly regarded in Schwarzenberg—got the better of me.

The Belcea Quartet meanwhile impressed with their great breadth of dynamics, although it wasn’t always clear to which effect these changes—often on a dime—were employed. And given that the seven Adagios were performed with astounding tenacity, it wasn’t too surprising that they had no more ferocity to give in the final Earthquake beyond what had already been displayed. Not, in other words, an earth-shattering concert.