Brighton audiences are getting to know the Elias String Quartet, not least from their Beethoven series in All Saints Church, Hove in the 2015 Brighton Festival. There they triumphed over an echoing church acoustic with playing as intimate as in a drawing room. In the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange for the start of the new coffee concert season the acoustic was warm but still resonant enough, seated, as we were, end-on because the Comedy Festival, running concurrently, needs a formal stage. Apparently the Elias likes this acoustic more than the more resonant arrangement in-the-round that will hold for the rest of the season. Audiences, however, treasure the closeness of sitting in-the-round and I personally like the more resonant acoustic achieved when the players are surrounded by audience rather than backed by curtains.
What do we like about the Elias? For a start they are a joy to watch; they move with the music, they smile over passages that come off particularly well, they look at each other all the time; indeed Marie Bitlloch on cello hardly bothers to look at her music. Each player projects a distinct personality. The difference between the two sisters is especially striking, Sarah, delicate and compact on one side while Marie, with her hair tied back and her impossibly long neck, looks like a ballet dancer on the other. Then, of course, there’s the playing: delicate, understated, expressive, aching with a passion all the more powerfully expressed because of the subtlety with which every note is crafted. There is also their tendency to be slightly loopy: bizarre pauses in Haydn; sliding between notes (portamento) in Beethoven. So what would they do to Schumann and Stravinsky?
A few weeks before this concert they dropped the planned Mendelssohn quartet and replaced it with Schumann Quartet No.3, adding it to his Quartet No.2 – excellent programming. Written in the same few months of 1842 the juxtaposition of Nos. 2 and 3 made it easier to see not only how typically Schumann they both are but also what a range of musical expression he was capable of – the lyricism of No.2 against the quirkiness of No.3.
Schumann is hard to play and two of the hardest things are that he writes phrases that seem to go on for ever; and that often every player is doing something of interest, not just accompanying the first violin – so four active parts have to be welded into a whole when at times they seem to be going in different directions.
No.2 starts with a 17 bar theme for the first violin. It’s a real challenge to make it a single phrase while remaining delicate, lyrical, and at the same time grabbing the attention of those at the back of the hall. Sarah Bitlloch does this sort of thing wonderfully and she did so here and throughout this concert. We were drawn into Schumann’s world by the end of those 17 bars. And so it went on: the second movement was exquisitely quiet but still expressive, the scherzo lively and wild. Within the scherzo there is a trio where Schumann gives the cello a tune and sets the other three against her, off the beat. It’s unsettling to play and to listen to – Schumann didn’t want to write comfortable music. Some players try to minimise the discomfort. The Elias emphasised it, and they did the same in No.3 when Schumann uses syncopation again with similar effect. They lean into the off beats as though to stress just how awkward they are. Martin Saving on viola never failed to smile at the end of each such passage, not, I think, with relief but with joy at the tension that Schumann injects into the piece with this device.
Finally the last movement of No.2 started with a gallop at a tremendous pace, the players like skittish horses, all over the place but, of course, perfectly together.
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet was also an inspired piece of programming which broke up the two Schumann quartets nicely. While Schumann was pushing music into new realms in the 1840s, Stravinsky did the same, and more so, in 1914. Like Marcel Duchamp’s toilet of 1917, the Three Pieces break away from as much of accepted custom as possible. Stravinsky manages to break more rules of quartet writing than one can count, although the Elias omitted his most outrageous instruction: at one point he instructs the upper strings to play their instruments upside down – like a cello. I think I agree with the omission, but I also see why, in 1914, Stravinsky thought it a gesture worth making. But is it music? Absolutely. I love the first piece especially, a wild dance-like whirling fragment with the 4 note descending figure from the second violin repeatedly breaking in, as though to say, “life is not all dancing – there’s horror too”. At the end I was asking “why just fragments? There was enough material there to be expanded into a full quartet”. But, of course, the “full quartet” was one of the moulds he was breaking.
Schumann’s Quartet No.3 was what you would hope for after hearing No.2. It featured some of the quietest quartet playing I’ve ever heard, which meant that when they really played loudly in the sombre 3rd movement the impact was all the greater. Right now the Elias are my favourite interpreters of Schumann. I long to hear them play Dvorak and Britten in February. I just hope there aren’t any strange pauses in Haydn Opus 54 No.2.