Concert review

Elias String Quartet

25th November 2019

The Elias String Quartet’s first visit to Penrith rewarded a good-size  audience with a performance of the highest calibre. Their programme picked out three significant dates in quartet history – Haydn in 1781 when he was discovering his style with humorous optimism and with more than 30 more quartets still to come; Beethoven in 1825, standing on Haydn’s shoulders, creating his last quartets from a visionary imagination in the silence of his total deafness; Britten in 1975 at death’s door reflecting on and accepting his mortality.

Haydn’s Quartet in G op.33 no.5 sprang to life with sharply articulated phrasing and acute awareness of dynamic levels and tone colour. First violinist Sara Bittloch introduced the piece and referred to the slow movement’s operatic melodic line. She then played it with great expressiveness, followed immediately by controlled rustic energy in the Scherzo. The Siciliano finale lilted along through its three variations; its Presto coda once again demonstrated the precision and cohesive quartet sound that these four fine players produce.

Second violinist Donald Grant spoke about the Britten Quartet no.3, which the Quartet had first worked on as students 20 years ago. Their performance was totally convincing - from the uncertainties of the opening movement “Duets” to the brash energy of the Ostinato, from the ethereal violin solo of the third movement to the wild Burlesque.

This was assured, committed playing from all four players who coped splendidly with Britten’s considerable technical demands. The final Recitative and Pasacaglia is the composer’s last word – a simple  phrase moving over the cello’s constantly repeated two-note figure, signifying stoical acceptance, beautifully managed. The silence that greeted the final chord was tribute indeed to a memorable experience.

Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor op.132 was another tour de force. The Elias Quartet have recently recorded all Beethoven’s quartets live from the Wigmore Hall and this performance exhibited all the attributes of players completely immersed in the repertoire to which they have devoted years of thought and study.

Beethoven’s changes of mood in the first movement were executed seamlessly – from the opening ethereal chords to exuberant outbursts and fleeting moments of tenderness. His calmer second movement drew refined tone and simple lines from all four players – a preparation for the heart of the whole quartet – the Molto Adagio, which Beethoven clearly enjoyed writing as it expresses his gratitude for recovery from illness. The solemn chorale (thanksgiving)  and new-found energy (recovery) alternate and the Elias players gave an immaculate account of this uplifting music. All that remained were the brief Alla Marcia and the exuberant Allegro Appassionato. The short cadenza that connects the two was despatched by Sara Bittloch with alarming extravagance – a gypsy moment to savour. The journey to the finishing line rushed headlong with mounting excitement – a concert that will live long in the memory.

John Upson

Updated on 25th April 2020
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