Year after year, arguably the finest collection of string quartets from all over the world appears on the Chamber Arts Society lineup. With their collaboration with Duke Performances, as well as their new home at recently renovated and resplendent Baldwin Auditorium, it would be hard to imagine a more aesthetically and acoustically fulfilling musical experience than these chamber music concerts.

Returning for another appearance at Duke was the Belcea Quartet, currently Quartet-in-Residence at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Founded in 1994, members are Corina Belcea, first violin, Axel Schacher, second violin, Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola and Antoine Lederlin, cello. They are a traditional quartet: no switching off first and second violin parts, nobody stands, no reading off computer tablets or memorized parts. What they deliver is anything but standard, both in their programming and performance.

The evening was Shostakovich sandwiched between two Schubert quartets. While these two giants are rarely mentioned together, the kindred emotional wallop of these works as well as some similarities in the travails of their lives became more apparent as the evening wore on.

Historians like to play the “what if” game, partially based on empirical evidence to arrive at a conceivable “reality.” Musicians of all genres also do the same, especially for composers and players who died at tragically young ages. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is one of those that, if you believe in such things, you shake your fist at the sky and scream “how can you do this?” This program began with his String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat – what would normally be labeled as a “youthful” work since he wrote it when he was 16. But, his life was already half over! This was actually his first mature string quartet, and I venture to say that there are hundreds of composers who would have given their eye teeth to have written anything like this in their entire lifetime.

This is a fairly traditional quartet in all aspects, and the Belcea Quartet brought forth all the emotion and compositional finesse that the young teenager had already been displaying for years. Schubert was a master at somehow splitting the difference between major and minor, leaving the listener with a sense of a delicious psychological unease. Then he would resort to almost comical effects like a hiccup-type theme in the scherzo.

There should be a consumer warning before someone listens to Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor that says “not recommended for those with suicidal tendencies or severe depression.” Actually, this was close to the emotional and mental state of the great Russian composer when he wrote this quartet in the summer of 1960 in an astounding three days. There are thousands of pieces of music that appeal to our dark side – that are moving, sad and can bring forth tears – but this quartet is singular in its brutal and naked psychological revelations and amazing translation of the depths of despair into music. I have heard nothing before or since that comes even close.

The quartet is in five movements (three labeled largo), played continuously so that the listener barely gets a break from the relentless onslaught. The Belcea Quartet was so attuned to the emotional message being sent by Shostakovich that at times it bordered on a sense of nearly unbearable gravitas and morbidity. Their control of very slow tempos and nearly inaudible playing elevated that effect to an even higher and more profound plane. As in much of Shostakovich’s works, it then morphed into a swirling almost hallucinogenic quality that, while faster and louder, had the sense of a delirious, crazed madman. (See the 2016 election.) As if sedated with powerful anti-psychotic meds, the music returned to the original spiral of paranoia and fear. In the end, nothing was improved, nothing was resolved, no respite from oneself was found. How was your day?   

Although some might quibble with some of the very early string quartets of Schubert being labeled as such, it is remarkable that he and Shostakovich both composed fifteen string quartets. More than a century ahead of the Russian, Schubert demonstrated a level of profundity and emotional revelations that were way ahead of his time and not that different from Shostakovich’s. His final quartet, No. 15 in G, is the culmination of that comparison. Written in June of 1826, this was the beginning of a “miraculous” string of masterpieces written in the final year-and-a-half of his life. Unprecedented in length and depth of musical ideas, this is a work that, to this day is an enormous physical, stylistic, and interpretive challenge for even the most accomplished string quartets.

This performance was simply sublime in every facet. The Belcea Quartet is a relatively staid and non-flamboyant quartet, yet their communication as an ensemble and the emotional connection they conveyed to the audience were so personal that at times it seemed almost inappropriately invasive. Another measure of the greatness of the Belcea Quartet is the way they illuminate the composer’s surfeit of themes and ideas. This doesn’t just “happen” by playing the notes. They took me on an incredible journey, and all I had to do was ride on their magnificent technique and awareness of Schubert’s musical mind.