The Belcea Quartet was established at the Royal College of Music in 1994 and takes its name from founding member and violinist Corina Belcea (pronounced BELL-chuh). The newest member, violinist Axel Schacher, joined the quartet in June 2011. Cellist Antoine Lederlin has been with the group since 2006 and Krzysztof Chorzelski has been violist since 1996. All four are world class musicians, gifted and impressively trained and experienced.

The Quartet’s debut at Duke Performances cames near the end of its year-long, globe-spanning endeavor to perform and record the complete Beethoven string quartets and a serious encounter with hurricane Sandy a couple of weeks ago in New York City.* The program consisted of the Op. 130 String Quartet (No. 13, in B-flat major) with its original ending, the Op. 133 Grosse Fugue, and, after intermission, the String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131.

The late quartets were composed 1825-26, Beethoven’s last word on the language he had lived with so intimately all his life. This music is strikingly profound and intensely personal; in it one finds influences of Beethoven’s bouts with illness, his failed love interests, his relationships with his personal assistants, his deaf world, his love of nature, his philosophy of life and much more. Mainly, however, it is his musical language that is the essence of these quartets. Beethoven reinvents form, development and harmonic language in each one and each one has its own unique personality. One must listen without any expectations.

Opus 130 and the Grosse Fugue (sometimes called Grand Fugue) project a rich, unfolding sequence of diverse movements, culminating in the monumental Fugue; together, these are the epitome of Beethoven’s personal, subjective vision of music. This six-movement Quartet is rather tuneful and easy to follow. Even with the avant-garde tonality, the violent contrasts and wildly innovative forms that characterize Beethoven’s last five String Quartets, this one has a more mercurial, almost pastoral aspect to it.

It begins with a slow introduction and continues with a tuneful development (Adagio, ma non troppo — Allegro). A long slow movement, which is interrupted occasionally with agitated pasages (Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso), is followed by a short playful dance movement (Presto). Then comes another long slow movement and a short dance movement of pure delight (Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai). After the loveliest of Cavatinas (Cavatina, Adagio molto espressivo), Beethoven tops this quartet off with a 16-minute Große Fuge that is almost as difficult to follow by ear (or by score) as it is to play. This is one of the movements that scares listeners away from late Beethoven. His audience didn’t care for the Fugue, and his publisher suggested that the piece should be published with an alternative finale. Beethoven was easily persuaded and composed a more conventional light and tuneful closing movement; the Grosse Fugue was published as a separate opus (133). Still it stands as a monumental achievement of creativity, and to hear it performed as it was conceived leaves one with a sense of awe. It becomes perfectly clear why Stravinsky described this music as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”

This is music that tests an ensemble’s mettle, and The Belcea Quartet dug into it with full vigor. They seemed to strive to accomplish the string quartet ideal of unity from diversity; a collective whole which is far greater than the sum of its parts. They played with much intelligence and regard for structure and context. There were some moments that were truly magical.

Opus 131, String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, is a deeply serious work. It begins with a really long adagio that serves as an introduction to a very short allegro. It changes tempo thirteen times, and all of the seven movements are played “attacca” or without a pause between them, so it can be a bit of a challenge to keep track of where you are. The fourth movement, which is divided into several sections and has the only repeat marks in the whole quartet, is almost a quartet within a quartet. The fifth movement has a motive that Beethoven quotes in the last movement of his last quartet, Opus 135.

This quartet boggles the mind. Beethoven is dealing here with the dark, deep inner imagery of a deaf composer. This is pure music and the music speaks of depths few will ever fully comprehend. There are generations of mind-boggled listeners. After repeated hearings, however, it often comes out as a real favorite. The presto movement is a perfect multi-facetted gem.

The Belcea Quartet gave us a sterling performance; an array of eloquence, drama and probing, demonstrating the completeness of their skill and artistry.

*Sandy forced the rescehduling and then the cancellation of one of the quartet’s Zankel Hall concerts: click here for details.