Beethoven from the Elias Quartet

Rebecca Franks heads to St George's Bristol for the end of the British quartet's Beethoven Cycle

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There could really be no other way for the Elias Quartet to round off their Beethoven String Quartet cycle than with the composer’s own final word in the genre, nearly his final word in music. The sublime F major Quartet is his farewell to life, written only a few months before his death. It is, as the eloquent, distinctive programme notes by pianist Jonathan Biss say, both a summation and distillation of what Beethoven had achieved in his 15 quartets. ‘One moment, [Beethoven] is digging deep into the earth in the scherzo; the next, he is addressing the cosmos.’

All this requires something rather special from the performers, and the Elias Quartet did the music proud. Nowhere more so than in the meditative passage that opens the Lento assai, played with a concentration and warmth that suffused it with an incredible sense of acceptance that this was the end of life. ‘Must it be?’, asks the final movement. ‘It must be! It must be!’ comes the answer.

But before we reached these transcendent moments, the Elias Quartet first had two other Beethoven Quartets to perform, each from a different period of his compositional life. They attacked the first movement of the B flat major Op. 18 No. 6 (1798-1800) with fervour, giving a zippy, at times breathless account. The gloriously lyrical tone of leader Sara Bitlloch shone in the second movement, and the group deftly navigated the rhythmic tricksiness of the Scherzo and tumble of the trio, only marred by a slightly rushed feeling at the return of the opening material. Stormy tension and playful ebullience intertwined in a well-judged final movement.

The Allegretto which opens the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2, from Beethoven’s so-called ‘middle period’, demonstrates how many different moods can be conveyed with just two chords, from the dramatic call-to-attention of the opening to more relenting moments. As in the other Quartets, it was the slow movement, with its octave time-ticking figure, that brought out the best of the Elias. Perhaps in the skittsh Allegretto and the final Presto, which always seems to be trying to right itself, the ensemble didn't seem quite at ease. But perhaps that's the point. It'll be interesting to hear it again when the whole cycle is released on CD, as recorded at the Wigmore Hall.