United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS – PCM8, Schubert: Elias String Quartet [Sara Bitlloch & Donald Grant (violins), Robin Ireland (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)] with Alice Neary (cello), Cadogan Hall, London, 4.9.2017. (CS)
Schubert – String Quintet in C Major D956
When I last heard Schubert’s String Quartet played, by the Carducci Quartet and David Cohen at St John’s Smith Square in May, I admired the fine techniques on display but found myself wishing for a ‘little more audacity’. That’s not something one could say of this vibrant, unpredictable and sometimes idiosyncratic performance by the Elias Quartet with cellist Alice Neary at Cadogan Hall.
This was a rendition which sought to highlight the emotional, textural and dynamic extremes created by Schubert’s musical palette. The word ‘steely’ occasionally came to mind, but such moments were balanced by other episodes of exquisite delicacy. Throughout, the players’ microscopic and mutual attention to detail was underpinned by flawless intonation, rhythmic litheness and terrific energy. At times, I thought that they would spring right off their seats!
The indisposed Martin Saving was replaced by viola player Robin Ireland (for twenty years, violist with the Lindsay String Quartet) who – and I hope he won’t mind me saying this – looked rather like a benign grandfather seated at the centre of the semi-circle of his younger colleagues. That’s not to suggest, though, that this wasn’t a performance in which every voice was truly equal: this parity, combined with a seemingly instinctive but no doubt meticulously prepared give-and-take between the players, resulted in wonderfully airy textures which allowed the infinitesimal nuances to be heard and savoured.
The first thing that I would like to note is the striking contribution made by cellist Alice Neary. Recently appointed Principal Cellist with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Neary demonstrated an innate appreciation of the diverse ‘roles’ played by the second cellist in this Quintet, as well as expressive phrasing and tone that was truly beautiful and captivating. Whether she was duetting mellifluously with Marie Bitlloch as in the lyrical second theme of the Allegro ma non troppo; providing a genuine ‘bass line’; underpinning the ensemble with magical pizzicato support – every single note in each group of pizzicatos in the Adagio was sensitively nuanced and differentiated; or insistently weaving her wiggling counterpoint to the first violin’s theme in the latter part of Adagio, Neary proved herself an eloquent, generous and empathetic chamber musician in this performance.
The first movement opened elegantly, the players choosing to rein in the vibrato, and the Bitlloch sisters conversed openly and assuredly, as they did – often with an exchange of smiles – throughout. But, never once during this performance were we allowed to ‘settle’; the players tenaciously stirred the listener’s ear. And, so, the apparent urbanity was immediately pushed aside by a concentrated crescendo to a taut, strenuous unison; then, we were off, launched by Schubert’s vigorous counterpoint, climbing and building, beginning again, until the air was cleansed by the nonchalant ease of the cellos’ carefree second theme – accompanied by a gentle viola pizzicato tread, and the violins’ fluttering quavers. The repeated up-bows employed for the latter were just the first of so many interpretative gestures which caught the eye and ear. But, if we were tempted by the cellos’ glorious tone to sit back and indulge, then the freshness and busyness of the ensuing figuration injected new vigour.
The ensemble observed the exposition repeat: was it my imagination or did they notch up the tension the second time around? Whatever, they propelled us into a development section in which pristine motivic fragments were opposed by the abruptness of the cello’s stern and weighty crotchet tread.
After a slight delay – why on earth did the Cadogan Hall ushers allow a late-comer to try to squeeze her way to the centre of row near the front? – the Adagio began with beguiling warmth and a rich coloristic range. Though the pianissimo dynamic was sustained small details were emphasised, and made clearly audible by the astonishing shimmering transparency of the sound. (I’m not sure just how audible such details were in all parts of hall, however; a colleague, not ‘on duty’, whom I met on departure, remarked that he had at times struggled to discern every delicacy from the gallery.) Bitlloch’s cello theme was blissfully untroubled and song-like; the pizzicato exchanges which envelop it were so expressive that I reflected not only on Schubert’s astonishing appreciation of the way timbre and content can cohere with such force, but also on my own failure to practice pizzicato with sufficient seriousness! Once again, we were not permitted to relax for too long: the passionate storm of the F minor episode was followed by eerie chords and silences which took us back to the reprise of the opening material.
The Scherzo was a rip-roaring, thigh-slapping romp, the theme of which sprang forward jauntily (I’m sure there was something unusual about the bowing of this phrase too, but I wasn’t eagle-eyed enough to pin it down). The racing staccato quavers were stunningly clear and precise, and it was good to hear the two ‘guests’ duetting in the Trio: the intonation was flawless and the two voices blended to form a singular unity.
The Allegretto began with a ‘mighty’ up-beat – mimicking the sort of breath one might take before a huge and daunting exertion. Playful rhythmic flexibility contrasted with gravity and reflection. And, while I wouldn’t describe the sound as joyous’ there was enormous focus and energy, even though the overall tempo was quite conservative.
If I had any quibbles then I might say that I found Sara Bitlloch’s tone just a little too hard-edged at times (shrill certainly isn’t the word, penetrating perhaps?) such as in the second section of the Scherzo when the violins are in octaves – though perhaps this was a deliberate intent as the supporting bass gestures were equally gravelly and gruff, and the players tore through the double-stops and dissonances ferociously. This interpretation probably wouldn’t be my ‘desert island’ choice; but, I was captivated and intrigued throughout. It really did feel like a Schubert Quintet for the twenty-first century.