Distinguished Beethoven from the Elias Quartet

14/02/2020

GermanyGermany BTHVN WOCHE [3] – Beethoven: Elias Quartet (Benjamin Navarro, Duncan Grant [violins], Simone van der Giessen [viola], Marie Bitlloch [cello]). Kammermusiksaal Hermann J. Abs, Bonn, 8.2.2020. (MB)

Beethoven – String Quartet No.9 in C major Op.59 No.3; String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp minor Op.131

Grave fragility, almost yet not quite without vibrato, characterised the introduction to the first movement of the third Razumovsky Quartet in this performance from the Elias Quartet. Then came the exposition proper, as if a command to ‘snap out’ of such melancholy or worse, to bring us into the present. Its good humour, however, did not betoken any lack of serious. This was cultivated playing, full of life, somewhere between brusque and boisterous. Later on, the infectious mystery of Beethoven’s – and the players’ – trilling prepared us for a recapitulation that had more than a few surprises left to spring. The second movement was eerily founded on a cello pizzicato (Marie Bitlloch) both angry and sweet. An inward turn of darker harmonies was rightly unnerving, but this was quite rightly a performance of many voices and moods. That underlying onward trudge that seems Schubertian, yet which it seems strange actually to call so, was in sensitive, comprehending hands throughout. A relatively relaxed minuet – Beethoven marks it ‘grazioso’ – offered something of a backward, even neoclassical glance, giving way to a tenser trio, teeming with counterpoint and seemingly preparing the way for the finale. This frenetic performance captured its madness, although there were times when it seemed to run away with itself before regrouping.

The strangeness of the key, C-sharp minor, especially for strings, registered immediately in the performance of the Op.131 Quartet; so too did the rarity, in every sense, of Beethoven’s writing therein. ‘Unearthly’ may be a cliché – what is not when writing about this music? – yet how else might one characterise such seraphic sweetness as was to be heard in this work’s extraordinary first movement? ‘The most melancholy thing ever said in music,’ according to Wagner: who are we to disagree? Bach’s abiding presence, crucial to both composers in later life, was revealed in struggle and sweetness alike. Much the same might be said of the next two movements, if not on the surface, then beneath, where the truest action and sentiment are to be found. Fragility, even further fracture, beneath the already fractured surface of the third told of music that will perhaps always resist a more complete understanding. The central ‘Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile’ heard no taming of its harmonies, its procedures the more enigmatic the more one listened. And yet, it often remained recognisably rooted in the eighteenth century: a paradox perhaps beyond even dialectical understanding. It was a rarefied form of release, yet release nonetheless, that we heard in the scherzo. Though marked ‘Presto’, I think it was taken less hurriedly than the finale of the earlier quartet (‘Allegro molto’); at any rate, the tempo seemed better suited both to work and to performance. A sixth movement that seemed to reimagine aspects of the first, in still richer yet no less rare tones, prepared the way for a strongly related finale, defiant yet once more sweet-toned. As an encore, we heard a waltz composed by violinist Duncan Grant for the wedding of two of his friends.

Mark Berry

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