An all-Beethoven concert by a string quartet seems like the most conventional program imaginable. But there was nothing predictable or routine about the Belcea Quartet’s sold-out Beethoven concert at the Gardner Museum on Sunday. The London-based Belcea, formed in 1994, plays with both the technical polish of an experienced quartet and a youthful willingness to take risks. The afternoon was in large part a case study in thwarting expectations, mostly to superb effect, and it accomplished one of the most difficult tasks in concert life: making Beethoven sound new.
The program itself was unusual. Rather than choose one work from each of Beethoven’s three familiar eras, the Belcea stacked the deck with works from the last two decades of his life: Op. 95 in F minor, the “Serioso”; the last quartet, Op. 135 in F major; and, after intermission, the A-minor quartet, Op. 132. The opening phrase of the “Serioso,” usually so energetic, here sounded unusually reserved. Slow tempos and a sense of flexibility marked the entire performance of a piece usually marked by forward drive and unremitting tension. The Belcea played beautifully — especially cellist Antoine Lederlin — but wasn’t afraid to coarsen the color of the sound when the music called for it.