A white cello case walks up Gardner Street in late October sun through the teeming Sunday lunchtime throng. Its feet belong to Marie Bitlloch and she trails behind three black fiddle cases that have waists and legs below them. It’s the Elias String Quartet on their way back to Brighton station for the journey home to south east London after a Sunday that began at 6am.
They had to have reached the Corn Exchange from Sydenham, breakfasted, journeyed, woken up properly, rehearsed, changed, tuned by 11am and ready to perform at their world standard. “At least we had a lie-in this morning,” grins Marie. “and we now have the rest of the day off, which is different to normal.”
“We really like coming here. It’s a special place,” adds Swedish violist Martin Saving (say his name like ‘starving’) as he affectionately surveys his street surroundings. And the Elias has taken him to many parts of the world.
“It’s like a second home to us in front of this Coffee Concert audience,” chips back in Marie, the quartet member with the molto espressivo face as she plays.
They’ve been coming here since their emerging years of the mid-2000s, not long after the Coffee Concerts were born at Hove’s Old Market. Since then they’ve chalked up maybe a dozen visits to Brighton including Festival appearances. In the same way as Heath Quartet, to the Coffee Concert fans they are now like adopted grandchildren, daughters and sons.
As the audience disappear to seek lunch, I ask lead violinist Sara Bitlloch about their line-up. I can’t think of another international string quartet divided in half between the sexes but with the boys playing the inner parts − thus throwing onto the girls, more often than not, the melodic spotlight. The elder of the two French sisters has a long ponder.
“No, I can’t think of one currently playing. There was one, the Mendelssohn Quartet, in America, but they don’t perform now. It was their presence which prevented us calling ourselves by the same name.” The Elias went for the German form of Elijah instead.
Until their complete Beethoven Quartets cycle across the country and Radio 3 airwaves last year, the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream man’ appeared to be the Elias’ trademark composer. They’d speed off like quicksilver with him, Sara’s fingers would fly and her face anguish at tackling the whitewater ride of note-playing. Today, though, the Elias compensated an audience disappointed not to be listening in the round (the Corn Exchange Comedy Festival week theatre seating had to stay in place) with something warm and very different to Mendelssohn or Beethoven.
It’s been very rare to encounter any Schumann among Coffee Concert quartet offerings but here, along came two buses at once from Leipzig, the second and third of his three 1842 quartets, sandwiching on the programme some Stravinsky marmite. They originally intended to finish with a Mendelssohn quartet but to add instead the more often-played third Schumann quartet was a sound way to introduce new-tasting music to kick off the new season.
These works come from the third year of one of the world’s most laudable musical marriages, of Robert and Clara, celebrated for its loving and devotional qualities, for its long-striven triumph over paternal opposition and publicly-projected possessiveness, and for its rich harvest in Robert’s burgeoning output. But it’s Schumann’s popular piano-based work and the public thirst for symphonies that have obscured his quartets – wherein lie, Elias confirmed, many glimpses of that hard-won marital contentment.
Characteristically, they began the second quartet with great restraint, control, quietude and tenderness, and with the music truly quickening not until then, they stirred in the third movement and unleashed themselves in the finale. All well-suiting a Sunday morning after the clocks go back.
For the first three movements of the third quartet they conveyed much sensuality, evoking physical as well as verbal discourse before the catchy finale when they danced into the playfulness and urgency of the often rustic-sounding music. Few in the audience will not have been surprised and grateful for this soft-spoken introduction to Schumann intimacy.
A cliché of critique is that Schumann’s personal piano language, with all 10 fingers saying something, pervades his other instrumental music to its detriment. Elias second fiddle, the Scot, Donald Grant, quickly refuted this idea. “Yes, the textures are sometimes dense,” he said, “and you need to adjust to that, but the music does not sit awkwardly on our instruments at all, or sound pianistic.”
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces were in bleak and discontented contrast to the Schumann quartets but not the acutely abrasive antidote some unfamiliar listeners might have feared. This seasoned Coffee Concert audience would not have been frightened but will have been struck, perhaps, like me, that the bleakness was much less in the musical language than in Stravinsky being deliberately and frustratingly brief and insubstantial.
Dance was a flash of four disparate elements quickly cohering and then instantly expiring. Eccentric was inspired by an entertaining clown who quit the stage as soon as his audience showed signs of getting the point. And the Canticle, though not accusable of an over-short stay, in the Elias’ hands was broken, desperate, despondent, tongue-tied, on its hands and knees, dying, and to be extinguished from its misery.
This Elias Stravinsky was another of those Coffee Concert 20th Century repertoire experiences that made your senses rejoice for having been made to sit bolt upright.
Are Elias String Quartet the first ensemble to make two Coffee Concerts appearances in one season? They are back with Haydn, Britten and Dvorak on February 21 − with Heath Quartet here on March 27 with Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Ravel.
Next up, meanwhile, are The Aronowitz Ensemble on November 29 with Dvorak’s quartet Cypruses, Beethoven’s D major Cello Sonata (Opus 102 No 2), and Brahms’ great Piano Quintet in F minor.