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.
The group’s reading of Op. 135 was even more unorthodox. The piece is often treated as the most conventional of the late quartets, but the Belcea took a sort of deconstructive approach to the first two movements, paring the texture down to its discrete elements and setting them out in stark relief from one another. It was an unnerving way to hear familiar music. The slow movement was so quiet that it seemed to fold in on itself — an experience almost too private for an audience to witness.
The five-movement A-minor quartet was the most straightforward performance of the afternoon, but also the most perfectly realized. The central “Heiliger Dankgesang” — one of the most poignant stretches of music ever composed — was played very slowly and almost without vibrato, giving every chord change the feel of a chapter in a novel. It was also unerringly paced, no small feat in such treacherously exposed music, and it was almost a relief to be brought back to earth by the churning finale, where serenity and light are found only at the very end. Such were the joys of stepping outside the bounds of the familiar with Beethoven and four superb musicians.