An extraordinary concert by the Elias String Quartet, March 29 in Temple Beth-El for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, began innocently enough with a zesty Haydn quartet, but the main course was the provocative pairing (across intermission) of Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor quartet of 1826 with Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit” (“Thus the night”), completed 150 years later. (Dutilleux died in 2013, at age 97.)
The two works are, of course, very different in vocabulary. Beethoven’s quartet has escaped the gravitational pull of classicism, which remains, however, still visible in the rear-view mirror. Dutilleux’s language is fully Modern, with few ties to precedent. Yet the two works are congruent in some ways. Dutilleux’s skittering figures and serpentine runs have their counterparts in the Beethoven quartet, as do Dutilleux’s richly chorded passages. Both
Elias String Quartet
Photo: (c) Schott Promotion / Milan Wagner
March 31, 2015
Some indisputably great musical works are so strange and idiosyncratic that a first hearing can puzzle — but also fascinate — even the most adventurous listeners. What on earth was that?
Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, surely belongs on any list of WTF pieces. Its sprawling seven-movement form, its protean moods, its restless, fragmented melodies seem, at first hearing, to describe an alien world in an incomprehensible tongue, and the weirdness scarcely abates at fifth or sixth hearing. Eventually, the piece begins to resemble music. Little by little, with repeated hearings and exposure to different interpretations, it reveals its wonders, but always keeps some secrets in reserve so that one must listen again. One gains understanding, but one loses something as well — the puzzlement of that first hearing. Puzzlement is a wonderful thing. Among the rarest and most treasurable of human experiences are the ones that make us ask: What on earth was that?
are in seven connected movements. Dutilleux’s work is less than half as long, but its contrapuntal density in some passages seems to compress an equivalent amount of music into the shorter span.
Both works are deeply strange. Appearing on the same concert, they entered into an intriguing dialog with each other. The later work came earlier on the program. Rather than making the Beethoven seem more conservative by comparison, as one might expect, the Dutilleux prepared the audience to hear more of the transgressiveness of the Beethoven.
At the same time, the Elias troupe had clearly studied and absorbed the Dutilleux so throughly that it came across as surprisingly lyrical and fluid. The mystery was still present, but it sounded like — well, music. In the engrossing, deeply considered account of the Beethoven that followed, the Elias took some unusually slow tempos, especially in the opening adagio, but the long arc was fully supported. And it was nice to hear really explosive sforzandi.
The Elias played the opening work, Haydn’s Quartet in C, Op. 33, No. 3 (“The Bird”), with an extrovert, conversational style, an appropriate but never obtrusive freedom and, in the adagio, chordings that were poised and scrupulously in tune.
The Elias was established in 1998 in Manchester, England, but didn’t perform in the US until 2012. Its members are Sarah Bitlloch and Donald Grant (violin), Martin Saving (viola) and Marie Bitlloch (cello). They proved to be remarkably well-matched. Individually and as an ensemble their bright, limpid and vibrant sound was unalloyed pleasure throughout the concert.