Rue, Brittenia!

Belcea Quartet

(Corina Belcea and Laura Samuel, violins; Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola; Antoine Lederlin, cello), a CAMA/MasterSeries concert. At the Lobero Theatre, Monday, March 6.

The quartet got off to a good start with a lovely and lively performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major, K. 499. Indeed, the quartet played beautifully, with feeling and dazzling skill, throughout the concert.

Is there anything interesting left to say about Mozart that has not already been said? I live in hope, but I haven’t come up with anything yet. During the first piece, I wrote on my program: “The Belcea set a brisk pace in the Mozart — would we later, becalmed in Britten, come to regret their haste?”

Not for the first time, I could echo Laurie Anderson’s “Oh boy! Right again!”

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, Opus 94 is of a piece with the great mass of his output. It’s not that the music is offensive — it doesn’t make me want to clap my hands over my ears to keep it out. And the sheer confidence of his unmelodiousness is impressive. (He seems to actually have a melodic idea sometimes, but he quickly withdraws it, almost with embarrassment.) When something slips out that sounds like a tune, after a few notes you realize it is just a line on a graph.

The only time that the Belcea actually irritated me was when they froze at the end of the Britten — like something cosmic had just gone down and they wanted to give us a chance to let it sink in. But the only thing that had gone down was my spirits. What colossal pretension!

If Britten composes with invisible ink, Shostakovich does it with a branding iron. Even when he is in one of his rare diffuse moods, as in the rambling String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Opus 73, he is always compelling. The second movement of this quartet starts with an interval that is aggressively, almost militantly odd. As if to underscore the oddness, the ensemble slowed to a Boris Karloff, stiff-limbed lurch — to very good effect. Yet, I confess that even so ardent a Shostakovian as I lost track at several points, and wondered where all this was going. The group froze again into a tableau at the end. There was a protracted silence, and finally the Belcea had to rise to signal the applause to start. These youngsters are marvelous musicians, but they could use a little help with their programming. ■

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