Lunchtime Series: Elias Quartet,17thOctober 2019

This was apparently a debut of a very well known group of musicians which very nearly didn’t happen, the circumstances of which served to remind the large audience of the pressures of a musician’s life. Unsurprisingly an audience tends not to think of such things and easily to assume that such an existence is roses all the way. The people in front of them are after all highly gifted, presumably are doing the only thing that they have ever wished to do, for all of which they receive money and adulation. Some might think it to be the very essence of a win ,win existence.

But, of course, life is very rarely like that and before the concert started the Chairman of the Festival reminded the audience of that truth. Quite apart from the strain in an artist’s life through the constant practice and rehearsal needed for maintaining a reputation, there is the travelling involved in such a career. In this instance, it seems that the day before this concert the Elias were playing a full evening concert in Devon and here they were expected to be in the Midlands the following morning and to deliver another demanding programme.

In the event such a reality check for the audience may well been to the Quartet’s advantage since a trudge to the stage became rapidly of lighter step as they received a welcoming ovation usually reserved for the end of highly successful  music making. The adrenalin flowed ,any fatigue totally vanished and we were off.

And what a start to the concert was their performance of the Australian composer Matthew Hindson ‘s 2nd Quartet . It is a feature of this Season’s music both at the Festival and in this Series that there is firstly  a satisfying amount of contemporary music and secondly that it has consistently engaged at least this listener’s ear. In reviewing the contemporary chamber works that I have heard over the last few months, a new quartet by the now famed Australian composer Brett Dean( who was here at the Festival some 15 years ago) , a variety of Mark Simpson’s compositions , a short work from Cheryl Frances Hoad at the last Lunchtime concert  and now this work, it would be false to claim that all this resulted in my being able to recognise, particularly at first hearing,  clear differences between the various sound worlds created by the various composers. However, what was consistently gripping was the way in all these compositions that the various instrumental combinations were used to consistently dramatic effect. With the string ensemble in particular it rapidly becomes apparent whether the music is developing in an interesting way and for me this particular quartet from the very beginning seemed on a fascinating journey. In the first section the wonderfully full and rich tone of these musicians was immediately apparent, as was, where necessary, the tremendous virtuosity of their playing, and this work demanded plenty of that . As it proceeded, it became quite clear that these players had a phenomenal range of corporate sounds, yet without ever losing that oneness were able also to project the individuality of each of the players within the quartet. That range was perhaps best illustrated for me in the most memorable part of the work ,the third section where the players were asked to ,as the programme put it, sound like a viol consort, this morphing by contrast into a final section full of jagged and thrillingly energetic music.

Then came Schubert’s D.804 Quartet ,often given the title of The Rosamunde since the second movement is taken from the incidental music written for the play of that name. It is a work that carries with it what was in the later works to become very much the composer’s preoccupation, a sense of loss and of the mortality of all things living, a preoccupation which produced some of most sad and aching music ever composed . This was conveyed with great beauty in this performance. At unhurried speeds  and often minute inflections , it brought out detail after detail. It was clearly a deeply considered interpretation which left one thinking the work to be one of the composer’s most lovely creations, full of wistful sadness.

Of course, in all interpretations of front rank music there are choices that have to be made. However, was there here, I wondered, occasionally a slight inclination to dally in order to bring out fully the melancholic beauty so in evidence in the work, a tendency which resulted in a slight underplaying of the work’s more dramatic and lively features ? For instance, would the opening Allegro have benefited from a slightly faster onward drive, particularly when the following movement went at a true Andante? Of course, it may be that I had in my head performances last month at this year’s Festival  of two later masterpieces  , the like of which I had never heard surpassed. Also, this particular quartet, for all its sad beauty, hardly reaches the magisterial level of a work like the Quintet.Therefore,  in reality one should simply accept this performance for what it was, an outstanding achievement and one to be cherished.

The concert ended delightfully with the arrangement by a member of the Quartet, Donald Grant, of a Gaelic song by Cicely Macdonald of Keppoch. (I pass on the Gaelic name!) It was so beautiful that I was mildly saddened to learn that it was invoking the men of the clan to go and fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie, a man as deeply flawed as his three Stuart predecessors who had lost their thrones. But then when did unpalatable facts win out over romance?

Hopefully the Elias will return with as equally an intriguing programme in the future.



The opening concert of the Philharmonia season occurs this Friday at DMH at 7.00. ( Note the earlier starting time for most concerts this season) .

It features the exciting young conductor Elim Chan who two years ago as a late substitute made such an impression in Leicester. She is conducting Britten’s wonderful Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes and Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian Symphony. The concert also features the great cellist Sol Gambetta in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1  .