By Lawrence Budmen

The late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) are that master's greatest artistic legacy. In these still startlingly original works Beethoven turned away from the conventionalities of the Classical and Romantic eras and created deeply personal, boldly experimental chamber music scores. The harmonic ambiguities, dissonances, non-linear form, and technical demands of these quartets changed "art music" forever. These scores confounded the audiences of Beethoven's day and continue to challenge performing artists and audiences alike today. London's Belcea Quartet brought an interesting interpretive approach to the "String Quartet in A Minor," Opus 132 - the most compelling performance of their South Florida debut on November 8 at UM Gusman Concert Hall, presented by the Friends of Chamber Music. 

The Belcea Quartet is the Resident Quartet of London's Wigmore Hall. The group has won the Osaka and Bordeaux International String Quartet Competitions and the BBC Young Generations award. Yet its ensemble playing was not always precise. The musicians' individual performance level was highly variable. Violinist Corina Belcea is a brilliantly gifted player with a shining tone, commanding leadership, and instinctive musicality. Violinist Laura Samuel is an accomplished, rather coolly cerebral musician. Violist Krzysztof Chorzelski played with a thin, dry tone. Cellist Alasdair Tait was frequently inaudible and suffered from fuzzy intonation at times. 

The Beethoven quartet brought out the best in the Belcea players. There was occasional drama in the opening movement. Despite a somewhat tame approach to the Allegro ma non tanto, the movement's trio section was lovely. Violinist Belcea played with silky tone and silvery lightness and her colleagues matched her idiomatic approach and tonal resonance. The unsettling Molto adagio - Andante was played with reverent, beautifully articulated emotion. The music had an almost spiritual dimension. Corina Belcea's strongly personal phrasing brought passion to the concluding Allegro appassionato. Despite the performance's imperfections, Beethoven's landmark score proved ultimately indestructible! 

Earlier in the evening, the Belcea foursome's renditions of quartets by Haydn and Mendelssohn were less satisfactory. Mendelssohn's lovely "String Quartet in E Minor," Opus 44, No.2 proved scarcely recognizable. The opening Allegro assai appassionato needed greater romantic ardor. The Scherzo: Allegro di molto lacked lightness of touch and spirit - too Lisztian. The Andante was rather dispassionate. The concluding Presto agitato was beset by ensemble problems. The rollicking second theme was stubbornly earthbound.

The Belcea's approach to Haydn's "String Quartet in E-flat Major," Opus 71, No.3 was strangely sober. The opening Vivace was played in a straitlaced manner. The theme and variations of the Adagio con moto lacked character and individuality. The Menuetto was essayed in a dispirited, humorless manner. The Finale: Vivace was rather hard driven but wanted for charm. Where was the wit of "Papa Haydn?" The impish vigor of the father of the string quartet's creation was lacking in the Belcea players' interpretation.

The Belcea Quartet offered some thoughtful, probing Beethoven playing. They will need to enhance their ensemble playing if they are to reach the pinnacle of the world's chamber music groups.

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