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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Concert Review: The Prodigy and the Proletarian

The Belcea Quartet play Schubert and Shostakovich.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher, violins,
Antoine Lederlin, cello, Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola) in concert. Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall.




Although they lived in very different times, there are some parallels between the composers Franz Peter Schubert and Dmitri Shostakovich. Both men composed from a very early age. They lived in troubled, though very different eras, and faced incredible odds. For Schubert, his demon was a protracted and fatal illness that claimed his life at 32. Shostakovich's enemies were depression and the unpredictable political environment of Soviet Russia, where one false move could have fatal consequences.



On Friday night, the cosmopolitan Belcea Quartet brought a program of pieces by these two men to Zankel Hall, the sleek performance space located in the lower depths of the Carnegie Hall building. This quartet has enjoyed twenty-two years of success, with a complete cycle of Beethoven quartets under their belts and a long catalogue of recordings on the old EMI label. Even their stage attire suggested a certain flair, with violinist Corina Belcea in a crimson and black concert dress and the three men in Chinese-style concert blouses in black silk carefully accented with scarlet.

They opened with the E Flat Major Quartet, written by a 16-year-old Schubert for performances in family concerts, in which young Franz (like many composers who played their own quartets) took the viola part. The influence of Haydn is present in this work's four movements, although Schubert takes a longer melodic arc in each of the four movements. The Belcea players revealed a warm, expressive tone, as they brought the listener through the sonata form of the first movement, stretching the tempo in the development before bringing the main theme back with bold strokes.

Although Schubert was 16, this is a mature work. The fast Scherzo demanded precision and taut rhythmic snap from the violins, with Ms. Belcea and Axel Schacher giving way to a lilting waltz in the Trio. the deep tones of Antoine Lederlin's cello lead the expressive, flowing Adagio, a slow movement that showed that Schubert had absorbed the lessons of Beethoven's works. The quick-footed finale abounded with good humor, with the sunny repetitions feeling like a well-worn and still funny joke among the small circle of the composer's immediate family.

Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 offers a different kind of intimacy, a reflection on that bleak period in the 1930s when the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District drew the wrath of Joseph Stalin and censure from the Soviet dictatorship. The work is five movements played attacca, and its relentless momentum is part of its appeal. It starts slowly, with the cello singing forth the four-note theme (D-E flat-C, B natural) that translates to "D-S-C-H" or "Dmitri SCHostakowitch" in German notation, a phrase that shows up in all five movements.

Although the Eighth quotes from Shostakovich's early works, most notably Lady Macbeth, it is the product of his style in 1960. He wrote  huge public symphonies and odes to the glory of the state, carefully alternated with smaller works like this that held his innermost thoughts. The Belcea players brought a savage fury to the fast movements, and a spidery delicacy to the toxic waltz that appears in the third movement. Two slow movements brought the work to its close, a last, dying repetition of the "D-S-C-H" theme, the composer's musical signature repeated in a key indicating bleak despair.

The last half of the evening offered Schubert's String Quartet No. 15, his most ambitious essay in the format and a work that places great demands on performers and listeners alike. At 45 minutes, this massive work offers total immersion in Schubert's most intimate thoughts, and its melodic twists and turns show a composer of total confidence and maturity. Theis performance was profound and warm, with the sweet voices of these four instruments coming together in sad songs and eventual triumph in the protracted finale. As an encore, violist Krzysztof Chorzelski announced that Shostakovich "would have the last word". It turned out to be the Allegro non troppo from the Third Quartet played with caustic fury.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.