Beethoven Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3: Elias Quartet

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Wigmore Hall Live
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Complete string quartets, Vol. 3: No. 3 in D, Op. 18/3; No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (Serioso); No. 13 in B flat, Op. 130
PERFORMER: Elias Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: WHLive 0086/2

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This recording is of what must have been an exhausting concert in October 2014 at London’s Wigmore Hall. These Beethoven string quartets, two of them highly demanding, may only last for a little over an hour and a half, but their specific gravity is enormous.

First up is the third of the Op. 18 quartets, a lovely and in no respect slight work, which would, like the whole Opus 18 set, have a much higher reputation if Beethoven hadn’t gone on to write his later quartets. Op. 95, the Serioso, gets a blistering performance from the hyper-intense Elias Quartet, sweeping you off your feet with their playing of the opening, and never letting up throughout the astoundingly pregnant 20 minutes it lasts.

Then we have next the enormous, always surprising Op. 130, with the substitute last movement, Beethoven’s last completed composition. Something that may put some listeners off is the extreme degree of portamento which the leader, Sara Bitloff, employs throughout these performances, but especially in this one. She swoops in a way reminiscent of string playing in the 1920s, and though it adds to the intensity, it can become wearing. Mainly I find it admirable, but it could have been a bit less incessant. Needless to say, the reading of this quartet is deeply considered, insisting that the listener make his contribution to the experience: the peremptory, immense first movement is a kind of DIY piece, inviting the audience to share in bringing the contrasting elements into relation with one another. The heart of the quartet, the ‘Cavatina’, is played with extraordinary purity. The whole experience is unforgettable.

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Michael Tanner