No one could accuse Krzysztof Penderecki of prolixity when it comes to some of his chamber music. His Fourth String Quartet, given its world premiere by the Belcea Quartet, runs for about seven minutes, and is only fractionally shorter than his Second Quartet, with which it was in this instance juxtaposed. The two works are poles apart in style. The Second, with its quarter tone clusters, spasmodic violence and slithering glissandos, dates from 1968 when Penderecki was still very much an avant-gardist. The Fourth, representative of his late lyricism, is essentially neo-Romantic.
It’s dominated by the viola, which opens with a sparsely accompanied arioso before introducing the thematic material for the subsequent three sections: a gnarled, contrapuntal allegro; an andante, in which the cello is allowed momentary prominence; and a folk-inflected finale that fades out on a rhythmic viola monotone. Its brevity, however, tells against it. Where the Second Quartet’s ferocity derives precisely from its compression, the Fourth feels perfunctory, more a sketch or a vignette than a fully developed score.
You couldn’t fault the Belceas’ playing of either work. The Second Quartet had real in-your-face intensity, and violist Krzysztof Chorzelski was darkly eloquent in his solos in the Fourth. The evening began and ended, meanwhile, with Schubert. The E flat quartet D87 was beautifully poised, while the Death and the Maiden Quartet, in D Minor D810, found the Belceas at their best in a performance that blended great technical refinement with emotional extremes.