A complete Beethoven cycle in the concert hall is a career-defining challenge for any string quartet. The Belcea Quartet embarked on theirs following the usual pattern of programming one work each from the early, middle and late-period quartets. In this programme, the late work, Op 127, seemed to bring the respective sweetness and strength of the preceding two, Op 18 No 6 and Op 95, into a sort of equilibrium.
Not that Op 18 No 6 was simply sweet. The slow introduction to the finale was solemn and substantial enough to feel like a movement in its own right, and when this material returned towards the end, the players briefly gave it a jarring tone, as if the music were baring its teeth. And there was ample sweetness in the second movement of their otherwise furious Op 95, in which the Belceas revelled in the kind of refined yet vibrant sound made by the best Viennese ensembles.
Even after 17 years and two changes of lineup, the Belceas still play like a young quartet, seizing the music's energy, shocking us out of our seats with every fortissimo. There's a huge range of colour in their quieter playing, but in louder, faster passages the tendency is to go straight for the music's jugular, pushing it as far and fast as it can go: the middle section of the scherzo in Op 127 passed in a blur.
The muscularity of the Belceas' playing is essential to their distinctive identity. But what if they applied that going-for-broke approach a little less liberally? It might open up a whole new resource of expression at the loud end of their range. Listening to a performance as good as this, it's tempting to think that that's the only thing standing between them and genuine musical greatness.
• Broadcast on Radio 3 on 11 December
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