The Belcea Quartet plays Szymanowski and Schubert
at The Massry Center for the Arts, Albany, NY, October 21, 2021
(Presentation by Capital Region Classical concert series 2021-2022)
String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 37, Karol Szymanowski
String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden, Franz Schubert
Corina Belcea, violin
Axel Schachter, violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola
Antoine Lederlin, cello
It may be unnecessary to claim that the Belcea Quartet is one of the most esteemed string ensembles performing today. However, since they are based abroad, and were founded over twenty-seven years ago by Romanian violinist Corina Belcea and Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski, their artistic uniqueness and stature has eluded wide recognition in the U.S.
The Belcea Quartet reminds one of the great Végh Quartet of the past. Sándor Végh’s legendary quartet had an unusual central European burnished warmth which besides coloring the lower passages darker than other groups, also freed the high registers from a metallic edge. The highs were always lyric, never exposed; the lows had a softly cushioned resonance; rapid passagework had a slightly dry touch, but complex textures were remarkably clear. I believe the Belcea Quartet sports a similar sound and color: in both groups the second violin and viola have a clear precedence, while the first violin and cello pilot the essence of the interpretation.
Tonight’s challenging program certainly tested the artists in balancing energy with warmth. Both works possess, to a certain degree, the “Gothic Romantic” world of shadows, melancholy, terror, and dæmonic mirth. The group’s sumptuous tone, articulative clarity, passion, and intelligence gave us ideal evocations of two very different musical worlds.
Karol Szymanowski’s music has only recently gone through a revival due to the advocacy of conductors like Antoni Wit, Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev, Pierre Boulez, and pianists like Garrick Ohlsson, Pyotr Tomaszewski, and Lucas Debargue. Szymanowski has always been cherished in his homeland and regarded as second to Chopin. Boulez commented that on the radio in the 1940s, one didn’t hear the popular “radicals” like Stravinsky or Bartok, but instead, Szymanowski. His violin and piano works were championed by Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot.
In an interview preceding the London Symphony Orchestra’s pairing of Szymanowski’s four symphonies with the four of Brahms, Gergiev summarized the essence of the composer’s gift and curse: “[His music] can be very brilliant; but, it can also be very aggressive.” Rather than treating listeners to a shower of colorful tunes and colors, Szymanowski keeps memorable lyricism to a minimum and rarely spares listeners his penchant for moments of discord.
Szymanowski had deep lifelong associations with three great Polish-Jewish musicians: violinist Pawel Kochanski, pianist Artur Rubinstein, and conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. Kochanski imparted to the composer the alchemy of writing effects in the upper violin registers with the attendant harmonics, glissandi, and trills. After learning these techniques, Szymanowski’s music always seemed to seek the highest registers and tessituras, becoming a musical signature amply displayed in tonight’s string quartet.
The Quartet No. 1 is squarely a C major work in spite of its many dissonant, pentatonic, and atonal excursions. At least, Szymanowski bullies it into C major by thrusting a C-G pedal, which demands its way even when everything else defies this anchor. Formally, this work follows the traditional sonata form that he used in his first two symphonies and the preceding three piano sonatas; Szymanowski typically used only two or three movements to accomplish the formalities that most composers lay out in four movements.
The majestic anthem-like opening (in C major), leads to the evocative and mysterious Debussian main motif which permeates much of the first movement. High drama and some jaunty “burlesque” episodes are mixed in that playful yet insistant way that is so typical of his style. This haunting opening motif reappears in the development and recapitulation before the solid, if somehwhat forced, C major coda and cadence.
One of Szymanowski’s most affectingly beautiful “songs” opens the slow movement and is reminiscent of both the second movement treatments in both his second symphony and second piano sonata. However, unlike those works, we are not led to a series of variations on the “song” but more of a series of mysterious and defiant reflections which lead without break to a final “fugue.” It was customary in the earlier works to end with a “Scherzo” (“ABA” form) fugue at this point, but this one is quite bizarre (the last he would write). Each instrument plays in a different key (C – cello, Eb, F#, and A) yet there is so much tonal overlap (being minor thirds apart) that we never feel thrown into a rancorous polytonality. So, each fugal voice merely enters in its home key and proceeds humorously forward. A middle section (“B”) starts another fugal exposition, this time in quasi-inversion, but finally returns the opening (with pizzicato) into two sections of yet new triplets of keys. Not being able to go further, we hear a flourish from all, then a simple and unexpected G to C cadence. The Belcea Quartet brought forth Szymanowski’s plan in a lucid and convincing way, providing the contrasting treats of mythos, pain, lyricism, and ultimately, sarcasm.
Schubert is never more suggestive of Caspar David Friedrich’s Gothic romantic style than in the D Minor quartet, known by the somber lied on which the second movement is based, Der Tod und das Mädchen. Unlike Szymanowski, Schubert does not demur in spinning the most stunning variations on this barely-aspirated dirge-like tune. Surrounding this core are expositions of grand drama and aggrieved turbulence. The first movement, arresting in its searing pathos, exposes the chilling interval of the fifth adding an occasional trenchant edge. Yet, the sonic grandeur gives us relief in the disarmingly light and delicate second subject. After the Scherzo (which Wagner might have appropriated for the Nibelung motif in the Ring), the rondo finale is a wild “totentanz” jostling between minor and major. Schubert’s signature harmonic ambivalence is his use of major-minor juxtapositions, and in no other work does he conjure so unnerving a spirit as here. As well, in no other performance as tonight’s has the otherworldliness of Schubert been conveyed so convincingly.
The concert, part of the Capital Region Classical series (formerly the Union College Concert Series), curated by the resourceful Derek Delaney, promises a season of uncompromising stellar chamber and keyboard recitalists. The Massry Center for the Arts is warm and inviting venue on the campus of College of St. Rose in Albany. Ensuing events take place here, at Union College in Schenectady, and at Hudson Hall in Hudson.