Haydn: String Quartet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No 4
Prokofiev: String quartet No 1 in B Minor, op. 50
Schubert: String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)
The British were coming, the British came, and the British indisputably conquered... at least the packed Coolidge auditorium of the Library of Congress last night. One of the major string quartets of the new generation, the Belcea Quartet has had a pretty busy and international career so far, and it seems that nothing is likely to stop them in the near future. Now that Washington has emerged from the thick blanket of snow that abruptly covered it earlier this week, hordes of Yankees and probably more than a few expats came and eagerly sampled an enticing program of Haydn, Prokofiev and Schubert.
The first piece by Haydn was all spontaneous vivaciousness and subtle elegance. Obviously on solid and familiar ground, the four young musicians stepped right into it and delivered an assuredly polished performance. It was nice comfort music, and very satisfying too.
After the sheer refinement of 18th century classical music, Prokofiev's String Quartet No 1 was quite an unsettling contrast in all its 19th century modernism. While the first movement remained fairly “classical” and featured catchy melodies, the second one was all sharp dissonances and tense lyricism, with even a few spooky pizzicatos thrown in for good measure. The fact that the finale was the slow movement was another surprise, and concluded all the restless agitation on a welcome introspective note.
Named “Death and the Maiden” from Matthias Claudius' poem by the same title about a Maiden imploring Death to spare her and Death promising her blissful eternal sleep, this Quartettsatz was composed by Schubert when he was 23 years old and encapsulates all his musical works until then in a stunning display of full-blown maturity. Its structural complexity punctuated by recurring melodic crescendos expresses an impressively wide range of emotions, and the Belcea Quartet’s vigorously precise performance of it grandly enhanced the piece’s natural charm and intensity. These Brits are here to stay.