The Elias Quartet – the second Coffee Concert 2011-12

Review by Andrew Polmear (founder member, Strings Attached)

We were back in the Corn Exchange for this concert and it was interesting to compare the setting to the intimacy of the Dome stage where the first concert was held. The Corn Exchange is a great barn of a place, even with the raised seating area curtained off. The players sit on a raised dias in the centre with seven rows of seats around them. It’s intimate but it could never be cosy. Instead the management has gone for drama, with the players lit by white spots while the audience is washed in pale pink: only just enough to read its programmes by. It’s the Mastermind effect and signals that something serious is going on.

Few programmes could be more serious than this: three fugues from Bach’s Art of Fugue followed by Beethoven’s opus 130 ending with the Grosse Fugue.

The Art of Fugue is extraordinarily complex and clever but that does not make it sublime. What does is that Bach paints patterns which interweave through the four parts, sometimes setting the players against each other, sometimes bringing them back together.For some listeners it is enough to absorb the music, as one would look at an abstract painting. For others, the whole complexity of human life is there: the journey of a single voice through life, the joys and the chaos of human relationships, the intimacy of sex (for four), the optimism that ultimately all will be resolved.

Bach opens by stating simply his sparse theme and after the first four notes we knew that the Elias felt this piece deeply. They played the whole piece mezzoforte, every note and every phrase exquisitely shaped. By resisting the temptation to intrude an alien expressiveness they allowed the music to do the work. It’s interesting that they say they arrived at this way of playing Bach not as a policy but because, as they got to know the piece, this is how it seemed to want to be played. By doing that they have arrived at a way of playing that is close to that of specialist baroque players.

Beethoven opus 130 has similarities with the Bach: it plumbs the heights and depths of human experience and does end with a fugue. But the differences are more striking: it’s emotional range is extraordinary, from humour in the ‘dance’ movements to weeping tenderness in the Cavatina. It sometimes has what you could call a tune, but more often the parts pass musical figures backwards and forwards as they shift mood at sometimes breakneck speed. All this is technically very demanding. In the 19th century some renowed players wouldn’t play the Grosse Fugue that Beethoven originally wrote as the final movement. The Elias not only coped with those technical challenges but brought new insights to the piece. They brought out the emotional range by highlighting the shifts between loud and soft. I don’t think I have ever heard a violin played so quietly in a concert hall; the subsequent forte was all the more striking. And all was played, again, with exquisite phrasing and passionate intensity. The quartet is preparing to perform the whole cycle of Beethoven quartets round the country, and will start their Brighton Beethoven concerts in autumn 2013. It will be worth waiting for.