Chamber music at New Hazlett

The New Hazlett Theater on the North Side of Pittsburgh has a new boarder — chamber music. Beginning this season, chamber music arrived at the New Hazlett with the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society’s four-concert series, “Bridges.”

The Bridges concert last Monday night featured the young Belcea Quartet, from London’s Royal College of Music. The group treated the audience to Haydn’s Quartet No. 27 and Benjamin Britten’s second and third quartets, pieces with which the players are intimately familiar and recorded for EMI Music.

In 1996, the musicians worked on the quartets with members of the venerable Amadeus Quartet, the group the ailing Britten chose to premiere his third quartet — and final major work — in 1975.

Violinist Laura Samuel reflected on working with the group, writing in the program notes, “It was a meeting that had a profound effect on us all both musically and personally. Their meticulous attention to detail and genuine affection for the music was infectious.”

It was evident that the elderly members of the Amadeus Quartet had instilled their affection in the young musicians of the Belcea Quartet, whose affinity for Britten’s music was on full display at the New Hazlett Monday night.

The Belcea Quartet allowed Britten’s deliberately constructed third quartet to unfold and speak for itself. Actors as well as musicians, the quartet members leaned toward or away from each other to give visual cues to the music. At the beginning of the piece, the second violinist and violist glared at each other as they played their dysfunctional parts with jagged rhythms and overlapping pitches.

The Hazlett proved to be a perfect venue for chamber music, preferable to Carnegie Music Hall, which is often too large for string quartets. The Belcea musicians didn’t have to overplay and sacrifice nuance for volume, which served the Haydn well. Monday night, the audience, the first row of which was nearly level with the performers and only a few feet away, could hear every whisper, articulation, and trailing off, and see every movement of the fingers as the musicians played.

In the sparse third movement of the third quartet, the first violin’s extended soliloquy, accompanied by only one person playing long, sustained notes, the bow moving at about a centimeter per second, was completely audible in the hall. The sparseness made the piece’s middle section, which began after the virtually silent three-minute soliloquy, all the more bizarre and colorful with its contrasting pizzicato, swirling cello glissandi, trills, and staccato notes, all of which were vibrant in the hall.

The evening ended with Britten’s second quartet, written in 1945, 30 years before his third. The piece ended with one of the violins playing the movement’s earlier melody, which clashed against the repeated C major chords played by the rest of the ensemble and refusing to resolve. But the theme eventually resolved to C major; the four triumphant C major chords that end the piece were brilliant, showcasing the ensemble’s perfect intonation, and the hall allowed the resonance of the chords and the ringing of the instruments to hang in the air.

The Chamber Music Society will continue the “Bridges” festival next year, so audiences can look forward to experiencing chamber music in the intimate New Hazlett again.