Haydn Opus 54 No 2 in C, Britten No 1 in D major Op 25, Mendelssohn No 2 in A minor Op 13.
Raising the roof’s a lot easier. In a conversation with me only a week before this concert, after playing Walton’s Concerto with Worthing Symphony Orchestra, rising German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich commented: “I love it when composers have the guts to end a concerto quietly.”
Ending in a flourish can boost the ‘clapometer’ for a composer, especially after a piece challenging the listener, and it’s not only done in compositions for the packed concert hall. But here came The Elias on Sunday with two great works that do not pander to the grandstand. The blessing about a chamber music listening environment is that your audience don’t come with tingling excitement with a grand finish at the top of their shopping list.
Haydn and Mendelssohn write slow final movements in these chosen quartets and the reason why is plain to the listener who is really listening. Because of the intensified effect it has. We expect enterprising experiment and surprise from Haydn. And The Elias built their performance of this substantial star of his Opus 54 set of quartets, with its key stated significantly in neither the major nor the minor, so that the slow final movement – even though interrupted by a short, wispy fast section – leaves no doubt that this was the true destination of the music.
As they waited, then applauded, the audience knew this was no ordinary group of players, nor no ordinary morning. The foundations were thus laid for the end of the concert, when Mendelssohn does the same, emboldened not only by his own compositional flair and the romantic emotion of his material but by masterly examples before him by Haydn and Beethoven.
And the audience, before finally applauding, maintained a length of contemplative, appreciative, respectful and ultimately grateful silence its members will seldom have participated in.
In between, The Elias placed Benjamin Britten’s sobering, disturbing but stimulating Quartet, written two years into the 2nd World War from the safety of the US but imagining European destruction.
The Elias painted for us the many different worlds to which these three composers take us in their chamber works. The Elias’ assurance and ever deepening perception and accomplishment demonstrates the maturation underway in one of our best young quartets. It makes feasible the wide expressive range – as well as the daring – of this programme.
It is, of course, a gifted line-up with two French women bringing something extra to the table and Sara Bitlloch being one of the outstanding female first violinists. Her phrasing and expressive delivery contain a distinctive and arresting poise, passion and dignity.
Ever popular at Brighton, the listening experience they created won them encouragement back for an encore, and something remarkable happened, for which, we realised only later, they had prepared us. Donald Grant, the Scot, exchanged places with Sara and stood up to introduce two folk tunes from his homeland, scored for quartet.
He played the melodies, the first from the Shetlands, over a cello drone and ending solo – a gentle New Year’s Day wake-up call of the tactful, soulful kind for the most hungover of heads.
Then, again without finger vibrato, in sweet authentic style, this second piece flowing out of the first, he gave us Calum Road by folk band Capercaillie’s accordionist Donald Shaw. It’s a slow, dignified hornpipe – called a strathspey – evolved by Shaw from a Breton source. Grant slowed it down further and had first told us its story. Of Calum McLeod, a Glasgow-born crofter, postman and assistant lighthouse keep on the island of Raasay, off the Skye coast, who singlehandedly at 56 built an almost two-mile road, long demanded by the population but beyond the wit of the authorities, who later gave him the British Empire Medal for his pains.
An exceptional concert made extraordinary. The Elias violist, Martin Saving is Swedish. Maybe it will be his turn next time.