Artist Interview: Belcea Quartet

By Erik Petersons on March 2, 2020

The London-based Belcea Quartet is celebrating its 25th year as a quartet this season. They have made the Beethoven quartets a central part of their standard repertoire, complete with a box set recording of the composer’s full cycle. On two consecutive evenings this month, they will offer works from across Beethoven’s entire output. We spoke with Krzysztof Chorzelski, the quartet’s founding violist, about Beethoven's impact on the quartet, the dynamics of the group, and his side-life as a marathoner.

Erik Petersons: Having performed and recorded all of Beethoven’s quartets, how would you describe the impact of his music on the ensemble and what was your first experience with his works?

Krzysztof Chorzelski: For us, Beethoven is an all-consuming passion. He is the prime reason why we are a string quartet. For each one of us, hearing a Beethoven quartet for the first time was a turning point. Nowadays, many years later, we exchange strikingly similar stories about how we sleepwalked through our teenage lives bingeing on Beethoven in our headphones (We are, after all, the “Walkman” generation).

I remember discovering the Op. 131 for the first time in the Alban Berg Quartet’s EMI recording. It felt to me so human, so sorrowful, bizarre, tender, and heroic, that listening to it became the most powerful contemplation of human life for me. Many years later I discovered from Antoine, our cellist, that hearing this very same piece is what gave him the imperative to one day become a string quartet player.

The first time we performed and recorded Beethoven’s complete string quartet cycle was eight years ago, and I remember the sort of dizziness we felt when the season was drawing to a close. I don’t know if there is any actual parallel but it seems to me, from what I have read, that a similar feeling accompanies alpinists scaling the Himalayan heights: a sense of profound self-discovery arising from overcoming a titanic challenge that combines with the breathtaking scenery and the rarefied air into a sort of ecstasy. It is no wonder that since then we couldn’t wait to repeat this experience.

EP: You are performing the entire Beethoven cycle with Quatuor Ébène this spring. What is your relationship with them and what inspired this collaboration?

KC: The Quatuor Ebène are an ensemble we admire greatly. Their talents and skills span so many musical worlds, from the classical repertoire through jazz to improvisation, and we feel that this diversity feeds into their interpretations in a very convincing and compelling way. They are our ideal partners to share a Beethoven quartet cycle with. They are also our friends. On a few occasions we even “loaned” each other a quartet member to replace someone who was indisposed—and with a very good result! In two years’ time we will tour with them playing two of the greatest string octets—by Mendelssohn and Enescu—a project we have been planning together for a long time now! (What a shame that we are not going to be in Philadelphia at the same time as them...)

EP: As orchestral players, what dynamic do Axel Schacher and Antoine Lederlin bring to the quartet?

KC: I am not sure whether the fact that Axel and Antoine are also orchestral musicians has an impact on our playing. They certainly do bring very special qualities to our quartet, but I suspect that this has more to do with their musical background, which is very different from Corina’s and mine. From the beginning of our work together with Antoine, and later, with Axel, I observed how much more meticulous our rehearsals became with regards to the quality of our sound and the variety of colour and expression. Corina and myself are hot-blooded Eastern Europeans—our playing is driven by the intensity of our temperaments. I think that it is our French colleagues who add a palette of shades and colours to what would otherwise be a very expressive etching, but perhaps one in monochrome...

EP: This is your twenty-fifth year as a quartet. How has the group evolved and what are some of your goals moving forward?

KC: The group is evolving all the time. Every rehearsal brings with it new questions, which often cast doubt on the old answers... and this is perhaps what we love the most about our work. I think that we are helping each other to come closer to the greatness of the music that we play. Long may this continue!

And to be a bit more specific, I have a feeling that our work now is more and more focused on understanding better how the music we play is built, on trying to get more into the composer’s mind—I believe that this leads us to hitherto unexplored riches (especially when the composer we play happens to be Beethoven!).

EP: Alongside your career with the Belcea Quartet, you are a marathoner. Tell us about your experience and what motivated your interest in this area?

KC: I took up running in my thirties. It soon became my favourite pastime on tour, which is very surprising as I had never previously been a keen athlete. I think that what drew me to it was the quiet solitude and the focus on a task that is non-musical and non-cerebral. Then, a few years ago, the quartet decided to go on a six-month sabbatical. This felt like a perfect opportunity to set myself a challenge that would have been unachievable in the course of my “normal life”. And that challenge became training for the London Marathon. Since then I ran it three times and found it to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I think that I thrive on pushing myself as close to my limits as possible. Somehow, I feel that this kind of a challenge is not very far away from the spirit of Beethoven’s music...

The Belcea Quartet appears during the Society's all-Beethoven string quartet cycle, Tuesday, March 17 and Wednesday, March 18, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.