Two enigmatic string quartets: Schubert's A minor "Rosamunde" (1824), with its ambiguous, ever-shifting mood changes between minor and major, plaintive and insouciant; and Beethoven's vast, late C sharp minor (1825-6), with its continuous unfolding of no less than seven oddly assorted movements, adding up to – what exactly?
Nothing, on the other hand, enigmatic about the vastly accomplished Belcea Quartet, who throw every fibre of their beings into the most vivid projection of the masterpieces they undertake. Does the sophistication of colour and nuance they bring to detail, their almost orchestral dynamic range, sometimes sound over-refined and out of scale? Only occasionally did such doubts impinge on an evening of deep satisfaction.
The remote, winter journey-style opening of the Schubert was beautifully graded in its amblings and shudderings. In the slow movement, based on the Entr'acte from Rosamunde, the players responded intently to those strange moments when the odd spacing of some quite ordinary chord progression can seem to cast a shadow. Better yet were the wistful Menuetto – that astonishing adumbration of the Brahms idiom half a century too soon – and concluding Allegro moderato, one of those tender, radiant, youthful yet nostalgic finales that Schubert alone knew how to write.
Corina Belcea launched the darkly convolved fugue that opens the Beethoven at a slowish pace and with stabbing emphasis, which somewhat inhibited the flow of the ensuing ruminations; but the sudden lightening of texture into the gentle second-movement dance came the more tellingly, while the tiny transitional third moment, with its little first-violin flourish, was immaculately thrown off.
In the glorious central variation movement, with its wonderful variety of textures, only the Allegretto fifth variation lacked definition, yet the scampering Presto fifth movement was so variously and wickedly animated, one forgot its puzzling repetitiousness.
And in the introductory sixth movement and finale, with its tragic gallopings to exhaustion, the Belcea's weight and power of projection came into their own. This concert was dedicated to the memory of the Belcea's coach and second violin of the Amadeus Quartet, Siegmund Nissel, who died this year. He would surely have loved it.