United Kingdom Beethoven: Elias String Quartet [Sara Bitlloch & Donald Grant (violins), Martin Saving (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)], Malin Broman (viola), Wigmore Hall, London, 19.5.2014 (CS)
String Quartet in F Op.18 No.1
String Quintet in C Op.29
String Quartet in A minor Op.132
Two hours of chamber music by Beethoven comprising three weighty masterpieces demands considerable stamina from performers and audience alike. The sustained intensity and meticulous attention to detail which characterised this highly polished performance by the Elias String Quartet at the Wigmore Hall confirmed that they are more than able to rise to the musical and interpretative challenges.
Established in 1998, the quartet has been performing with the current combination of players since January 2004. In 2011 they launched ‘The Beethoven Project’, a four-year venture to present Beethoven’s 17 string masterpieces in venues across the UK. The project is now well underway and has seen the Elias travel from Bristol to Glasgow, Norwich to Manchester; arriving back at the Wigmore Hall, following an earlier instalment of the series in February this year,the effect of the players’ total immersion in this repertoire was plainly manifest in their instinctive communication and impeccable synchronisation. Equally impressive was the freshness of the performance and the evident enjoyment that the Elias derived from their music-making.
The first of Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets opened the concert, and the careful consideration that had been applied to every small motif and detail was immediately apparent, the players commencing the opening ‘turn’ figure on an up-bow, which instantly gave crispness to the staccato quavers, and compelling momentum to the movement. The movement was full of drama and contrasting colours: staccato semiquavers flashed by with remarkable co-ordination, the pianissimo passage which initiates the imitative development section was mysterious and expectant. Playing with perfect agreement, the instrumentalists still managed to convey their individual voices. Marie Bitlloch’s cello line was an eloquent underpinning, particularly at the start of the recapitulation, and she applied vibrato judiciously and thoughtfully. Martin Saving’s motivic gestures and syncopated countermelodies were muscular and cut cleanly through the texture without force. There were moments of spaciousness, but I wondered if the tempo was not a little too ‘breakneck’, for the coda did not quite assert the grandeur and breadth of the principal motif.
The Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato certainly observed Beethoven’s instruction, beginning with barely audible introspective pulsing by the three lower strings above which Sara Bitlloch spun an ethereal melody. The meandering motifs unfolded inexorably, moving through darkness and conflict, and the Elias demonstrated a sure sense of the movement’s structure building to a satisfying climax before the expressive, quiet close.
Bright cello crotchets gave drive and direction to the Scherzo theme, complemented subsequently by bitingly crisp acciaccaturas from the first violin. The pianissimo passages possessed the airiness of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and sforzandi were always contained within the general dynamic. The ‘braying’ gesture which initiates the Trio presented a lively contrast and the rustic mood continued as the first violin swept fleetly through quaver scales above a drone-like accompaniment. The concluding Allegro was again almost dangerously fast, but the players negotiated the passagework nimbly and there was an unbroken forward flow through minor passages and varied textures, the fugal dialogues possessing clarity.
After this exciting performance of a quartet which takes over where Haydn left off, there were echoes of Mozart in Beethoven’s String Quartet in C Op.29 – written shortly after the Op.18 quartets – in which the Elias were joined by viola playerMalin Broman. The first movement, Allegro moderato,was remarkable for its controlled expansiveness, as the players formed ever-changing combinations while sustaining a rich, embracing warmth. The scalic motifs seemed to metamorphose infinitely, and the broad sequential phrases of the development were marvellouslysonorous, at times orchestral in resonance.
The wonderful Adagio molto espressivo was one of the expressive highpoints of the evening; the players relished the voluptuousness of the richly decorated lines and sumptuous textures. The opening bars, in which the cello pizzicato at the start rang warmly but tenderly, supporting Bitlloch’s unfailingly sweet first violin cantilena, established an ambience of sensuous indulgence which was sustained throughout.
The Scherzo was full of wit and conviviality, the fortissimo outburstspossessing a relaxed humour. In the concluding Presto there was no doubting the aptness of the movement’s nick-name, ‘The Storm’, for the pianissimo tremolos quivered with an astonishing shimmer and incisiveness, the ‘wind and rain’ punctuated by explosive flashes of ‘lightning’ at times. The clouds parted for an uncomplicated tuneful episode and a cheekily genteel dance. The players relished Beethoven’s surprises and inventiveness, and this accomplished performance made one wonder why this Quintet is not more regularly heard.
After the interval, we moved from the early to the late period of the composer’s life. The Elias grasped the immense scale and profundity of Beethoven’s Op.132 in A minor, and from the placidity of the introduction there grew a sense of the composer’s inner turmoil as embodied by the searching quality of the motifs and forms. In the first Allegro I was impressed with the careful, probing and reflection that had obviously informed the quartet’s preparations, especially with regard to tempi and rubati; there were innovative and welcome moments of spaciousness and delay which enabled the Elias to imprint their own voice on the music and bring lucidity to the busy textures.
The perfect tuning of the opening unison octaves of the Allegro man non tanto was characteristic of the players’ flawless harmonisation, and despite Beethoven’s sometimes brooding harmonies the movement was full of positivity. The duo for violins which commences the Trio was bright and luminous, while Broman’s running viola melody was a buoyant energy within the staccato texture.
I was struck by the tense restraint of the Molto adagio; the cold, vibrato-less timbre conveyed a troubling disquiet, which was somewhat released in the intervening Andante sections. The Elias’s timbre, especially the sometimes almost indiscernible pianissimo, suggested a very modern consciousness; the stillness of the close was so penetrating that it was no surprise that the quartet paused at length before the Alla Marcia, which was full of gallantry and, in the faster closing section, gypsy-ish energy. After such a diverse array of musical worlds, the warmth and easy grace of the Allegro appassionato was uplifting.
In this individual and thought-provoking presentation of three of the composer’s masterpieces of chamber music, the Elias Quartet both captured Beethoven’s idiosyncratic ‘voice’ and revealed the musical variety within these three works. The Beethoven Project continues this month with concerts in Brighton and Reading. Further information about subsequent dates can be found at http://thebeethovenproject.com/category/calendar/.