This candlelit evening at the atmospheric Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with the Chilingirian String Quartet and friends had more of a cosy Christmas feel than yet another World War I commemoration, and was no worse for that. None of the music had any direct link to that war, except that it was composed just before or just after.

Levon Chilingirian and Carole Presland kicked off the evening with a performance of the Romance from Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 from 1918. It was a very gentle kick, more of a nudge, from a piece that mostly shows Elgar at his most whimsical. It took Levon Chilingirian some time to warm up and his intonation in the higher register was not all it could have been. Despite this, given the intimate atmosphere of the venue there was a touching feeling of a domestic performance.

Chilingirian String Quartet © Wax Media
Chilingirian String Quartet
© Wax Media

This was followed by the slow movement of Elgar’s String Quartet in E Minor Op.83, in which the very experienced Chilingirians showed a sensitive understanding of the movement’s rarefied atmosphere. Listening to it without the clothing of the surrounding fast music, I was left with the feeling that Elgar was over indebted to Brahms in this movement and like the older composer’s own string quartets, there was a sense of past masterworks weighing heavily upon it. It was only in the last few beautiful bars that the composer relaxed into the poetry of his own stye.

Moving onto the Vaughan Williams' Phantasy Quintet from 1912, one was instantly struck by a more assured and individual voice. The opening viola solo, richly played by Susie Mészáros, announces a musical language free of shackles of German Romanticism. This quintet is one of the most perfect earlier examples of the synthesis of folksong, Tudor modal harmonies and polyphony, within a contemporary framework, in the manner of Kodály and Bartók. The plaintive Prelude leads to a spirited Scherzo, a Ravellian Alla Sarabanda and then finally a distinctly bucolic Burlesca, which dissolves into a magical D major. Despite some rough edges, the Chilingirians gave a spirited and moving account of one of the composer's most important chamber works.

They evening was rounded off with the final work in the trio of chamber pieces that Elgar wrote after WW1, the Piano Quintet in A minor. Another problematic work, this time much more Elgarian in style, but with an orchestral sweep that doesn’t seem to be contained within the quintet resources he was deploying. In the outer movements the music seems to be straining for a brass section to push home it’s dramatic points and a large string section to overwhelm.

The Chilingirians, with Carole Presland admirably integrating herself into the ensemble, certainly gave it their all. The central climax of the first movement was as big boned and exciting as it can be, with its abundance of themes made sense of by the end of the movement. In the Adagio, the emotional core of the piece and one of Elgar’s greatest, this performance certainly brought out the underlying anxiety. Only in the finale did the performance feel pushed to its limits and some intonation problems were evident. To be fair this movement is hard to bring off. The rather empty grand principal theme seems out of place and by the end of the movement almost annoying in its insistence on a happy ending and the constant injections of themes from earlier movements don’t seem to add anything to the journey. An empty, defiant self portrait maybe, with the composer having only one more work up his sleeve, the Cello Concerto no less, and his own life about to be shattered by the loss of his beloved wife, Alice.