The Strad Issue: January 2010
Musicians: Belcea Quartet, Valentin Erben (cello)
Composer: Schubert

In this vividly recorded and well-filled pair of CDs, the Belcea Quartet continues its survey of Schubert’s late chamber music pieces with monumental readings of the three greatest of them. The observance of exposition repeats means that the first movements of both the Quintet and the G major Quartet last more than twenty minutes each (with that of ‘Death and the Maiden’ not far behind). This is not a complaint: as Bernard Levin once wrote, specifically regarding repeats in Schubert, ‘the first thought any listener has on hearing any of his works is “I wish I could hear that again!”.’ In the Belcea’s hands, Schubert’s ‘lengths’ become indeed – in Schumann’s phrase – ‘heavenly’. The group achieves an ideal balance between lyricism and strength, with no holds barred at the dramatic climaxes, which attain a shattering intensity.

At the other end of the dynamic spectrum are the shimmering, hardly perceivable tremolos that clearly show the way forward from the G major Quartet to Bruckner’s symphonic vistas. The Belcea musicians’ playing is finely calibrated, with unanimous agogic variations, as well as perfect voicing of chords, and they have a wide spectrum of tonal colours. I came to look forward to those passages in which a songful phrase in the middle parts is accompanied by the first violin’s semiquavers, since Corina Belcea’s gossamer playing of these is a particular source of pleasure. It is also good to hear Valentin Erben again, one of the mentors who have contributed to the Belcea becoming one of today’s leading quartets.

Carlos María Solare