Hampstead Arts Festival: Belcea Quartet play Beethoven’s Opus 130

Belcea Quartet. Picture: Ronald Knapp

Belcea Quartet. Picture: Ronald Knapp - Credit: Archant

Michael White previews an event at the “small but serious” Hampstead Arts Festival: Belcea Quartet

The Belcea Quartet

The Belcea Quartet - Credit: Archant

It may not be the biggest event of its kind in North London, but the Hampstead Arts Festival is the most serious, with significant artists doing significant things – as will happen again later this month.

On the roster for HAF 2017 is world-star violinist Viktoria Mullova and the dazzling young Escher Quartet over from the US where they’re resident at Lincoln Center and extract superlatives from the New York Times.

But there’s another quartet featured in the Festival, the celebrated Belcea. And they feature twice – because as well as their own concert on Monday 13th, their viola-player Krzysztof Chorzelski appears on Thursday 9th with a project of his own.

The story is this. In 23 years’ existence the Belceas have become so famous that they’re in worldwide demand as teachers, with their own charitable foundation to mentor new ensembles. But the individual members of the Belcea – who live far apart: Chorzelski in North London, the other three in Switzerland – also teach separately. And last summer Chorzelski was running a course in Scotland, as part of the East Neuk Festival.

Designed for hand-picked players on the brink of their careers, it focused on Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’: a passionately late-romantic sextet with an underlying story about love, confession and forgiveness.

After an intensive preparation period, Chorzelski and his students then performed the piece in public. And it was, he says, “an extraordinary experience, rare even for me in terms of its commitment and power. So I suggested we reconvene a year later and bring it to London – calling ourselves the Elie Ensemble because the East Neuk village of Elie is where we all met. I think it will be special”.

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No less special, though, will be the Belcea Quartet’s own concert, which is an experiment in trying, as Chorzelski says, “to present chamber music in a new way and take audiences out of their comfort zone so they listen differently”.

The idea is to play Beethoven’s late, great quartet, Opus 130, with the original concluding movement: the so-called Grosse Fuge which Beethoven decided was too monumental and replaced with a less demanding finale.

To play Opus 130 with the Grosse Fuge is always a challenge. But the Belceas are taking things further.

“I’m always struck”, says Chorzelski, “by how crazy this piece is, with an apparently shambolic structure that groups together ideas so ill at ease with each other it’s shocking - in a revolutionary way that’s meant to shock. It’s also hard to programme alongside other works. So we thought, let’s have a concert that focuses just on Opus 130 but fleshes out the shambles in an equally provocative way.

“We’re going to play the piece as written, with the Grosse Fuge, but inserting other music in between the movements. We won’t announce what this other music is: it will be a surprise for the audience. But after the performance we’ll hand out a playlist, and there will be an open Q&A for people to tell us how they felt about it.”

Some will no doubt thrill to the experiment, some won’t. And everyone will be exhausted because Opus 130 with the Fuge is at the best of times a tough listen and tough play. With random additions that extend the duration from 50 minutes to 90 (without break) it will feel like climbing Everest.

But mountains are there to be climbed, if only to bask in a sense of achievement afterwards. And for the faltering, there will be drinks and canapes laid on by sponsoring solicitors Osbornes. The Hampstead equivalent of a St Bernard dog with a barrel of brandy, they might be necessary.

Belcea Quartet & friends appear at Hampstead Arts Festival, November 9 and 13, 7.30pm, St John’s Downshire Hill. The festival runs November 9 until 20 hampsteadartsfestival.com