BEETHOVEN Complete String Quartets Vol 4
You can tell a lot about a performance of Beethoven’s Quartet Op 18 No 2 from its first bar. It’s all in those eight demi-semiquavers. Clockwork mechanism or fantastical flourish? Reviewing the first disc in the Elias Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (4/15), Peter Quantrill remarked that the Eliases ‘observe a certain classical propriety’, and nothing in this latest release wholly contradicts that. The articulation is crisp and neat, the textures refined and transparent.
But there’s a lot more going on, too. First violinist Sara Bitlloch scoops up those eight notes and gives them a little twirl, leaning ever so slightly forwards into the top of the phrase. An unmistakable fantasy is at work here; the subtlety and affection of the group’s playing (and the finale is quite irresistibly springy) is coupled to rhythmic drive and a questing collective imagination. As PQ put it, their classicism doesn’t tame Beethoven’s wildness but places it in its proper context.
So in Op 127 the opening chords function as a springboard, rather than a gatepost. The relationship between fast and slow in this movement never quite stabilises; instead, the Eliases find deep emotion between the cracks – teasing it out, lingering but never wallowing. They move purposefully through the great Adagio, and the aching sweetness of Sara and (cellist) Marie Bitlloch’s top registers makes for moments of melting beauty. Op 59 No 1 is perhaps the most unconventional interpretation here. The Eliases’ first movement is predominantly lyrical rather than argumentative, throwing the weight of the conflict on to Beethoven’s huge scherzando second movement. In the Adagio, there’s an intensely inward sense of four distinct personalities articulating a shared tragedy.
All in all, though, I’d say that first bar of Op 18 No 2 sends exactly the right signals about this set: its combination of intelligence and imagination, and, above all, its sense of wonder at this music and the worlds it opens wide. Comparisons are invidious, but after such loving, inquisitive performances the Alban Berg Quartet’s 1980s set (EMI/Warner) – my standard reference – felt extremely forceful (I don’t say foursquare). The sound quality is excellent, and you mightn’t realise that these performances were recorded live until you hear the applause. At which point you might well be moved to join in.