Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 2
This is the second instalment in the Belcea’s complete cycle of Beethoven’s String Quartets, still rightly regarded as the greatest challenge that music presents, certainly to performers and I would say to listeners. As with the first box, it mixes the quartets in no particular order, so it’s difficult to choose one over the other.
The chief characteristic of the Belcea Quartet’s playing is, I would say, intensity. That is partly the result of very close miking, which means that even if you play the discs at low volume, you still have the sensation of the players standing over you. Listening to a whole disc under those circumstances can be wearing; at least there are no heavy breathers, except at moments of extreme stress. Such unremitting intensity might lead you to think there is no relaxed, charming or skittish music here, which would be a mistake: there is a lot of Haydn in early Beethoven, though the first disc, which has two of the Op. 18 Quartets, does not show that.
The third item on the disc, the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, is always intimidating, and this suits the Belceas: at the end of its 16 minutes, they have you begging for mercy just as Beethoven would surely have wanted. The first two Razumovsky Quartets get ideal accounts, and so does the A minor Quartet, Op. 132, but I find that work so difficult that I don’t think I’m in a position to say.
The leader, Corina Belcea, usually cultivates a hard, sharply focused tone which can make for tiring listening. She shows, in her playing of the sublime slow movement of the last Quartet that she can be just as tender and warm‑toned as the other players, and it’s a pity that she isn’t more often. But this may be carping. This is a major achievement, and though they will no doubt record these works again, it will always stand as a memorable set.