Classical concerts typically come under fire for being too predictable; and though the criticism tends to come from people who don’t actually go to concerts, it demands consideration. Which is why you sometimes get a programme like the one given at last week’s Hampstead Arts Festival by the Belcea Quartet.
As one of the most celebrated string quartets around, the Belcea have a licence to take risks with crazy undertakings. And for this concert they took an already crazy piece – Beethoven’s sprawling, erratic, off-the-wall Opus 130 with the original Grosse Fuge finale – and pulled it apart, inserting music by other, mainly 20th-century composers between the movements to create a sequence that played without break for 90 minutes.
What’s more, they didn’t tell the audience what the other music was: it came as a surprise, and it was only after the performance that the details were revealed.
The idea was to prompt a different kind of listening experience, like music from an iPod played on shuffle. And in retrospect it was an interesting experiment, though in the course of the performance you were likely to be bothered (and distracted) by the quiz factor: the struggle to identify the mystery inserts.
I’m not sure that Beethoven emerged unscathed, but he survived direct comparison with some extremely edgy modern music, sounding just as radical as any of the Kurtág, Webern, Adès with which, like a Christmas turkey, he’d been stuffed. Dynamic playing from the Belcea doubtless helped.
Whoever came up with the name “Night Under the Stars” for the annual Festival Hall fundraiser for The Passage, a Catholic-led charity addressing homelessness, gets a Crackerjack pencil (if you’re old enough to remember those) and a round of applause because it’s cleverly ambiguous. On the one hand it suggests a night of glamour; on the other, it reflects a grim truth for the people sleeping on the streets who are The Passage’s concern. And it delivered on both counts last week during a concert programme based on Russian lollipops: nothing too challenging but nicely done.
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