Musica Viva claims to be the largest presenter of chamber music in the world, and in the last few years, they have brought world-renowned ensembles to Australia such as the Takács and Tokyo Quartets, as well as many exciting newer groups such as the Pacifica Quartet. Last night’s recital was given by another youthful ensemble, the Elias String Quartet, a group which is embarking on a tour of several weeks. Formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in the late 1990s, the quartet in its current line-up has been playing together for over a decade – and it shows. The players demonstrated almost immaculate coordination and communication, but better still, they conveyed a sense of their individual personalities.

Elias String Quartet
Elias String Quartet

The first movement of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 67 which opened the concert was smooth as silk: even the faster passages were never less than burnished. The phrasing of the second theme was especially delightful. The players didn’t miss out on Haydn’s legendary wit: in the Minuet they were clearly having fun with the cross rhythms, while the trio, by contrast, was deliberately subdued. The opening violin and cello duet in the third movement was played with affecting simplicity by the Bitlloch sisters. In the later return of the theme, I’d have welcomed a bit more from the cello. Also, the momentary foregrounding of the broken-chord figuration on the viola towards the end of the movement felt a touch forced. The finale was a burst of frenetic energy, and here the sound deliberately had more bite and edge to it (at times, almost to the point of excess). I particularly enjoyed the play with registers near the end, where the high violin is answered by the very low cello. Overall this was a very spirited and enjoyable rendition, in spite of the minor annoyance of a high-pitched electronic hum in the hall (something which would have been very appropriate for Smetana’s Aus meinem Leben Quartet…)

The second item was a new string quartet by Matthew Hindson. In his brief remarks before the performance, Hindson alluded to his source of inspiration (the marvels of recent scientific discovery) and also outlined its structure. Although it consists of only one movement, it has two quick sections, a slow section and a final fast section, and thus is clearly in dialogue with the traditional four-movement layout of the classical string quartet. On a first hearing, there seemed to be three main ideas laid out in the beginning: tremolos which grew in dynamic, jagged chords, and a three-note figure (B flat-A-G). These motives returned in various guises throughout the piece. The music encompassed both violence à la George Crumb and melancholic comments, the latter a characteristic of the more chordal, lyrical slow section. The players exhibited lovely bow control during passages in quiet harmonics, and they committed to the many extended techniques used, including sul ponticello (an eerie effect created by playing near the bridge) and col legno (hitting the strings with the wood of the bow).

After the interval, the first violinist, Sara Bitlloch, spoke well and to the point about Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor (one of the fabled Rasumovsky set). She pointed to its dissociated beginning, the vigour and intensity of the first movement – to which the totally introverted quality of the second movement is a startling contrast – and noted the off-tonic opening of the finale (which starts in C major, though it ends where it should, back in E minor). On the whole, the quartet coped well with its interpretative and technical demands: there was coiled tension at the opening, but also moments of total exuberance in the first movement. The second movement had some lovely tonal shading, while the fugitive opening of the third movement was particularly wispy and insubstantial. In the final movement, the players caught its mercurial quality well, and didn’t shy away from the violence. My feeling is that the group is perhaps more convincing at the soft and sensitive end of the spectrum than with the naked aggression that Beethoven sometimes demands, but I’ll wait to hear them in the Grosse Fuge before making a final call.

Normally an encore is perfunctory, even unwelcome, after a middle- or late-period Beethoven quartet, but not this time. Donald Grant, the second violinist, explained that they were to perform two linked Scottish pieces, one a New Year’s Day wake-up call from the Shetlands, which was atmospheric and freely metred; the other a more sprightly celebration of a local hero, which sounded a little hobbit-like (blame Howard Shore). Both pieces were centred on Grant, who used pitch bends and crushed notes common in playing Celtic music. This was an unusual end to an otherwise quite canonic concert, but one which showed the exciting range of this group.