The Elias Quartet

We talk to Donald Grant, second violinist of the Elias Quartet, about recording Mendelssohn for this month's BBC Music Magazine cover CD

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What does Mendelssohn mean to the Quartet? 

Mendelssohn is the composer we’ve felt closest to for many years and we've played all his string chamber music. One of his quartets was among the first pieces of music we played together with the current combination of players. When we were re-naming the quartet about seven or eight years ago we wanted to find a connection with Mendelssohn:  'Elias' comes from Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah.

What is it about his music that attracts you?

He writes extremely heart-on-sleeve music, and we find it incredibly genuine. He’s got a unique voice for string quartet. We’ve always been surprised about how little, especially in the past, his quartets have been played. But in the past people didn't think of them as great works, they weren't up there with Mozart and Beethoven. But we think they deserve a prominent place in the chamber music repertoire.

 

 

The Second String Quintet is one of Mendelssohn's last chamber works, but he didn't want it to be published as he wasn't happy with the last movement. What do you think of it?

He thought it was too flippant and frantic. I just can’t believe it. I absolutely love the last movement. Every time we’ve performed it, I’ve felt a really big reaction from the audience.

The first movement has this kind of bravura virtuosity, the second movement is one of his charming Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzos, then the slow movement is incredibly powerful. It’s got this deathly minor theme and an incredible climax at the end of the movement. Then the last movement is virtuosic, uplifting and fun.

Throughout the piece there’s a feel of his earlier Octet. It’s amazing how much the extra viola adds to the texture. It really feels bigger than the string quartet: much fuller and richer.

What is it like to work with an extra player?

We always love it. It’s amazing how one extra person can change the dynamic of the group. We’ve worked with viola player Malin Broman quite a lot now, and we always love it. She’s a fantastic positive presence in the group. As much as we love being the four of us and having that really intimate contact when we play quartets, bringing someone else in is one of the things we enjoy the most.

Why is Haydn's String Quartet, Op. 64 No. 6 a good pairing for the Mendelssohn?

Mendelssohn was so aware of the history of the string quartet, and he really continued on this tradition of writing. As much as this piece is a typical Haydn Quartet, the opening is unique and imaginative and slightly unusual for him. It has this muted chorale-like feel. We love playing Haydn Quartets, and we’re always astounded by his imagination, good humour and ability to touch an audience.

And rounding off the programme is Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor…

Schubert is one of the pinnacles of our repertoire. This single movement manages to say so much in such a short time. It was supposed to be a complete quartet, but it works so well on its own as a single movement. You have this incredible contrast between the minor sections and then this stunningly beautiful melody in the second subject.

What is it like to perform in the Wigmore Hall, where this disc was recorded and you are regular visitors?

We absolutely love it. I know everyone says it but the acoustic is incredible – we’re yet to find another like it. But it’s not just the acoustic, the audience is passionate and listens so well, so all these things together create a special intensity and atmosphere which makes you want to play absolutely to your best. It can be stressful in some ways, but it’s always one of the most enjoyable concerts. And there's a sense of history in the hall: it's exciting when you’re in the green room backstage and see the photos of all the musicians who have been there. 

Interview by Rebecca Franks

The Elias Quartet features on your free cover CD with the March 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine 

Audio clip: Mendelssohn: String Quintet No. 2 in B flat – Allegretto
YouTube: The Elias Quartet talk about the Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme