I have not heard the Elias Quartet’s previous performances of Beethoven’s String Quartets, but their programme at the Sheldonian Theatre brought the sixteen quartet cycle to a thrilling close.
Beethoven learned about the string quartet from Haydn and Mozart. Four string players, without a conductor, in conversation and conflict with one another – each player responding as an individual musician to the other instruments: no performance ever the same.
The Elias Quartet chose works from Beethoven’s early, middle and late period. The String Quartet in B flat major, op 18, no 6, evoked both introspection and high spirits. Its Scherzo played dazzlingly with rhythm, while its final movement La Malinconia was evoked with the utmost delicacy. Sara Bitloch and Donald Grant’s violins, Martin Saving’s viola and Marie Bitloch’s cello created notes of gossamer.
The great, and popular, ‘Rasumovsky’ middle period, with three great quartets, each expanding and developing the form, showed Beethoven’s all-embracing humanity and irresistible romanticism. The String Quartet in E minor, op 59, no 2’s slow movement evoked ‘the sky at night, like a planetarium’, Beethoven commented. The magnificent painted ceiling of the Sheldonian was an appropriate substitute to feast one’s eyes on.
The last, and for me the most moving and existential, was the final quartet of the concert, and of the project: the String Quartet in F major op 135 – the last piece completed before Beethoven’s death. It was written quickly in the summer of 1826, and finished by September.
As violinist Sara Bitloch movingly outlined, before picking up her bow: while the quartet summarises much of what has gone before in musical virtuosity and distinct, contradictory moods, it is its answer to the question: ‘Muss es Sein?’ and Beethoven’s sublime acceptance: ‘Es Muss Sein’ which leaves you breathless.
Then the encores began. Again and again. Bravo!