Elias String Quartet 21st February 2016 – Review by Andrew Polmear

We’ve heard the Elias so often in Brighton that I go to hear them expecting more of the same excellent, if occasionally quirky, playing. And every time I’m astonished by the unexpected. In the past I have enjoyed their silky smooth mellow tone, to which all four instruments contribute equally, their delicacy, their expressive phrasing, and their perfect ensemble. I always get the impression that they have looked deeply into each work in search of its essence.

Haydn opus 54 No. 2 is not short on essence and I loved the way the Elias played it. It was not a performance to please the purists; the expressiveness was sometimes closer to the 19th century than the 18th. But for me they carried it off because the intensity of the playing was combined with such delicacy, especially from Sarah Bitlloch on first violin.  The first movement was suitably busy in an elegant sort of way, the second movement almost unbearably intense, so that the bouncy Menuetto came as a relief, while the last movement started with magisterial solemnity, a mood that Marie Bitlloch on cello was allowed to continue in those slow arpeggios, the other players playing so quietly that nothing interfered with the magnificent simplicity of those rising notes. I warm to any leader who plays that quietly to allow the cellist to dominate, especially when it’s her younger sister. The Presto was the only section with which I had a problem. It was so fast it was hard to tell whether the ensemble had been lost or not, which means that, from the listener’s point of view, it had been. But soon the final Adagio put the piece to rest: intense and serene to the end.

I have absolutely no reservations about the playing of Britten’s first quartet. This is a great and complex work, not often heard, perhaps because of a fear that audiences won’t understand it. I can’t imagine it played better than this. It was all there: above all, the wistful melancholy of the first movement interrupted by those repeated violent episodes, and the elegiac mood of the third movement, as subtle as gentle waves on a Suffolk beach or leaves rustled by the breeze in an Athenian wood. There’s anger and fear in this work, and the players captured that, but it’s the ethereal mood, above all, that stays with me.

But we all have our breaking point and for me it came with Mendelssohn’s opus 13. It’s a complex and profound work, but it’s very ‘accessible’. Mendelssohn was very specific about dynamics and speeds and ‘all’ you have to do is play it. The Elias seemed to be trying too hard. I kept feeling that the piece had lost momentum, usually because the players had slowed down when playing quietly. And I especially disliked the use of portamento (sliding up to a note). It’s fine when the first violin has a cadenza-like solo but when she does it when playing with the others it sticks out like a sore thumb. However, the stunned silence when the piece ended suggests that the audience loved it and I’m in a minority. And I know we all adored the encore of two haunting Scottish folk songs. Buses were missed and restaurant bookings lost, because hardly anyone slipped out despite the concert ending 15 minutes late.