“All is Always Now” with the Gould Trio and the Elias Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn and Beethoven: The Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)] and The Elias String Quartet [Sara Bitlloch (first violin), Donald Grant (second violin), Martin Saving (viola), Maria Bitlloch (cello)], Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 11.2.2016. (LJ)

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13
Ludwig Van Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132

Last night’s concert formed part of the RWCMD’s “Beethoven: Music in Revolution” chamber music festival. The Gould Piano Trio commenced proceedings with an exquisitely mastered rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 which was followed by Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 performed with flair by the Elias String Quartet (who named themselves after Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio). After the interval, the Elias Quartet gave a most memorable performance of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, composed when Beethoven was recovering from illness in 1825 for Prince Nicholas Galitzin.

Before the musicians took to the stage, a guest lecture entitled “Beethoven the Revolutionary?” was given by the esteemed Emeritus Professor of Music, William Drabkin. What Drabkin stressed above all (aside from the many Shakespeare links to be found behind Beethoven’s music and almost indecipherable handwriting to be found in his scores) is that Beethoven’s ingenuity was encouraged and helped by the precedents set by Haydn and Mozart. This inheritance could be heard clearly in the exchange between violin and piano during the third movement (Menuetto: quasi Allegro) of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor. In this phrase, Mozartean humour tentatively surfaces, and was wonderfully emphasised in Lucy Gould (violin) and Benjamin Frith’s (piano) playing. Along with cellist Alice Neary, the trio conveyed the tension and suspense simmering under the surface of the C minor trio. In the Prestissimo finale, lightning bolts of rage and fury shot out from the dark, subdued atmosphere. Frith’s ability to imbue his runs with a sense of frantic haste and delicacy made this performance both nuanced and exciting.

After a quick set change, the Elias Quartet walked on stage to a warmed-up audience and welcoming reception. The Quartet’s decision to play Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor was most fitting as Mendelssohn composed the piece shortly after hearing of Beethoven’s death. The influence of Beethoven on the young Mendelssohn (he was 18 when he composed this work) was stressed by the Elias Quartet, particularly in the fourth movement (Presto) which opens with a dramatic recitative for first violin (played by Sara Bitlloch), reminiscent of Beethoven’s transition to his final movement in his Op. 132 Quartet. Another link to Beethoven can be seen in Mendelssohn’s conscious attempts to marry the many themes within the quartet. As musicologist Benedict Taylor writes, this quartet “is the most thorough-going essay in cyclic form, both by Mendelssohn and by any composer to that time, until the late works of Franck at the very least.” The Elias Quartet’s intuitive communication enabled the varied sentiments to be conveyed with a sense of coherency in each of the four movements.

When performing a quartet that could easily sound haphazard and chaotic, such as Beethoven’s brilliant A minor Quartet, the Elias Quartet’s skill was in their ability to blend the four voices and textures of their instruments seamlessly throughout the piece. Martin Saving (viola) was focussed and clear, Donald Grant (second violin) was spirited and emotive, and Maria Bitlloch’s (cello) pitch was impeccable throughout. Not only were Sara Bitlloch’s technically taxing phrases performed with ease, but she was an absolutely sterling leader. The acumen of the Quartet made listening to the stunning third movement a ravishingly beautiful, even disarming, event.

In a letter to Stephen Spender, T. S. Eliot explains the impact of hearing Beethoven’s A minor Quartet on the gramophone: “I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.” One could suggest that this did get ‘into verse’ when Eliot wrote Four Quartets:

“Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.”

It seems to me that the Elias Quartet were fully aware of the importance of recurring mottos and reprisals of earlier sections as they wedded Beethoven’s admixture of reflection and invention perfectly so that, for the listener, “all is always now”.

As an aside, I recommend readers to take a look at the Elias Quartet’s website for clips and comments about their ‘Beethoven Project’ –  a journey charting their discoveries whilst learning and performing all of Beethoven’s string quartets: http://thebeethovenproject.com/.

Lucy Jeffery

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