United Kingdom Haydn, Britten and Brahms: Elias Quartet (Sara Bitlloch & Donald Grant [violins], Martin Saving [viola], Marie Bitlloch [cello]), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 16. 4.2016. (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in C Op.54 No.2
Britten: String Quartet No.1 in D Op.25
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor Op.34
Intense concentration, scrupulous attention to detail and a perfectly blended collective sound are evidence of the Elias Quartet’s cerebral approach to music-making. But the Quartet’s shared intellectual conception of the music’s ‘meaning’ and the prodigious technical skill which allows them to communicate this are accompanied by intuitive feeling and fellow-feeling. In this demanding and varied concert at the Wigmore Hall we enjoyed the results of this blending of thought and soul, in a performance which was both highbrow and heartfelt.
The Elias must have brought considerable interpretative scrutiny to bear when preparing Haydn’s Quartet in C Op.54 No.2, for it’s a strange and complex work. The first movement is destabilised by recurring pauses and silences which prevent the music from assuming a persuasive momentum. The Adagio is introspective and quasi-improvisatory, and its reflections run straight into the ensuing Minuetto – a movement which can’t seem to decide if it wants to be genteel, majestic or exuberant. Then, Haydn denies the listener a comforting gallop to the close, and presents a final Adagio, teasing the ear with a brief Presto that suggests the expected merry coda is imminent, before slipping back into gentle quietude.
The opening of the Vivace immediately revealed the work’s unpredictability. Sara Bitlloch skipped brightly but restlessly through the first violin’s undulating descent above the transparent chord of the lower voices, but in a just a few seconds there were but two violins and then only one, as the first violin tentatively tried to keep the music spinning, before it too slipped into the general silence. Three such attempts, interrupted by long pauses, are needed for the material to acquire the self-confidence to proceed; paradoxically, it was the Elias’s assurance and control which enabled them to so successfully convey the music’s hesitancy and restlessness, and this opening sounded remarkably ‘modern’. Goodness knows what Haydn’s first listeners made of it in 1788!
In this Vivace initially it’s the first violin who does all the work in generating the musical material and Bitlloch assertively raced through the decorated passage work; but in the development section all four players enter the argument and this episode was notable for the clarity of the interplay and the uniformity of the execution of the ornamental ‘turn’ figure which adorns the motifs. By the end of the movement, the music doesn’t seem to have reached any conclusions, and the two loud chords of the closing cadence were quite brusque – poised but not triumphant.
The brooding, intense opening of the Adagio was tightly controlled, with a judiciously focused but restrained use of vibrato. Gradually, there was an expansion of the sound and hints of brightness but the ever more spacious statements were more insistent than warm. This movement is really a sort of fantasia for the first violin, and Sara Bitlloch boldly explored the intricate rhetorical lines, her tone rich and powerful, while Marie Bitlloch’s cello surely anchored the lower voices.
Pausing on the final chord, the Elias created tension, but ignored the arising questions and denied expectations by slipping in relaxed manner into the graceful dance of the following Minuetto which they shaped with firm tone and subtle phrasing. They also showed their flawless intonation in the strong unison passages, roaring up the cadencing scales with an excited crescendo. The minor-key Trio was full of character and the quietly emphatic sighing motif generated interest.
The Elias spun long lines in the final Adagio as the theme passed seamlessly from viola and cello to the two violins in the expansive opening phrases. Framing the gently pulsing double-stopped semiquavers of the middle two voices, the cello’s eloquent rising arpeggios formed a beautiful duet with the first violin’s rhapsody. After an affecting move to the minor key, the Presto really took off, and the Elias showed great control when Haydn repeatedly slammed on the brakes, halting the flow with the return of the disruptive silences of the first movement. Behind the quiet modesty of the concluding pianissimo chords, one could detect a touch of Haydn’s trademark humour.
Marie Bitlloch’s deeply resonant pizzicato – one could almost feel the rounded tones resonating within one – and Sara Bitlloch’s soaring high-wire lines formed a powerful union of extremes in the introductory episode of the first movement of Britten’s First String Quartet. The three upper voices, retreating almost to silence then growing in presence, formed an ethereal mist through which the cello resounded. The intensity – reminiscent of Beethoven’s slow improvisatory passages – was sustained through an impressive variety of subtle changes of colour, until the more light-hearted Allegro vivo brought relief, injecting rhythmic energy and high spirits through its driving open strings, contrapuntal conversations and stratospheric melody.
The unbroken communication between the four players was remarkable in the brief Allegretto con slancio, as the Elias made much of the fierce contrasts between the folksy bravura of the repetitive rhythms and the violent stabbings of the fortissimo triplets which insistently disturb. Again, the intonation in the demanding unison passages was meticulous. The harmonic nuances of the Andante calmo were expressively coloured. Viola player Martin Saving joined Marie Bitlloch in fervent, declamatory reflections against the violins’ drone, eventually inspiring each voice in turn to contribute their own angular recitative. Here we could admire the skill of the players as individuals as well as the unity of their collective expression.
In the fleeting Molto vivace, the clarity of the Elias’s fugato textures revealed both the ‘classicism’ of Britten’s writing, in its confident use of imitative techniques and forms, and its ‘modernism’ – as such techniques are juxtaposed in unusual contexts and contrasted with fragmentary reminiscences from earlier movements, creating unceasing surprise and freshness. The astonishingly virtuosic final cadence caused no problems, and was executed with such confidence that the lurching shift to the ‘tonic’ D Major seemed utterly inevitable.
The Elias Quartet were joined after the interval by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips for a stunning performance of Brahms’s Piano Quintet which literally entranced me from start to finish. What was most astonishing was the unwavering balance between the five voices – each instrument was equal, and each was permitted to contribute clearly, never needing to fight to be heard even in the most agitated or fiery passages. But equally impressive were the sheer beauty of the players’ tone, the ambitious and well-considered interpretation of every single detail which they offered, and their ability to unify Brahms’s rich Romanticism with moments of Classical lucidity and elegance.
Nothing was quite as one might have expected it to be, but everything sounded just right. Even the familiar unison theme which opens the Allegro non troppo was transformed into something new – slow, secretive, almost eerie – which made the subsequent piano arpeggios and forceful string chords seem almost angry before the quieter theme, which swelled and ebbed expressively, brought brief calm. The ear was constantly drawn to detail, motif and melody; and, in this regard, Crawford-Phillips’s clean articulation of Brahms’s fiendish, stormy writing was superb – he drove the music forward from within, the middle voices often urgent and pressing, but never over-powered the strings. Indeed, the pianist would have found it hard so to do, so commanding was the Elias Quartet’s playing.
The Andante, un poco adagio benefited from a well-chosen, fairly swift tempo which meant that the serenity of the lilting melody was underpinned by forward movement and subtle tension. The Scherzo was utterly compelling; each time the grand, martial theme rang out in a blaze of C Major warmth, the audience collectively smiled with pleasure. The torturous chromatic meanderings which open the Finale were spacious and again one noted the strength and sureness of Sara Bitlloch’s high-flown lines which ran impeccably into the cello’s sprightly, tight articulation of the main Allegro theme. In this final movement, as throughout the whole of this wonderful concert, the playing was always particular and precise – but it was also impassioned and magnificent.