Sublime, timeless, transcendental – words often used, often rather casually, to describe Schubert’s final works, such as the String Quintet in C major, D956, alongside the final three piano sonatas, Schwanengesang and the F minor Fantasia for piano four-hands. For the quintet, these descriptions are generally used in relation to its exquisitely moving slow movement. But the work as a whole, coming in at over 50 minutes in duration, encompasses a much broader range of emotions than this might suggest. But perhaps the reason such words are used is that Schubert expressed something emotionally indefinable and almost unreachable in these late works, and the massive String Quintet certainly contains much that touches in ways that are not easy to explain.

Elias String Quartet © Benjamin Ealovega
Elias String Quartet
© Benjamin Ealovega

BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists alumnus, the Elias String Quartet was joined by cellist Alice Neary for the last of this year’s Chamber Music Proms at Cadogan Hall. They were joined by an extra visitor, with violist Robin Ireland replacing the Elias’ Martin Saving who is recovering from a shoulder injury. They gave us an expansive and audacious performance of the quintet, achieving a huge range of expression, from miniscule, fragile pianissimos, right through to full-blooded, even aggressive fortes. Schubert chose, like Boccherini before him to add a second cello rather than viola to the string quartet line-up, and this gave Schubert extra weight and depth to his sound palette. However, Alice Neary and the Elias’ cellist, Marie Bitlloch avoided the danger of too much ‘heft’ at the bottom of the texture, and in fact, their beautifully matched sweet tones were perfect for one of those aforementioned sublime moments, the first movement’s exquisite second subject duet. Yet Neary in particular was not afraid to add bite and substantial attack at times, with a notably fierce entry in that same movement’s turbulent development section.

So to that slow movement. Well, here a sense of timelessness was indeed achieved. The tempo was steady, not as slow as it sometimes is, which was wise – there’s a fine line between time feeling suspended, and momentum stopping altogether. Sara Bitlloch’s expressive but delicate first violin line, and Alice Neary’s precise pizzicato placing underneath perfectly sandwiched the slow harmonic tempo of the inner parts, creating that contradiction of movement and stasis at the same time. When they dropped to ppp for the second half of that first section, with the first violin joining the second cello on pizzicato decoration, the effect here was darkly, achingly beautiful, preparing us in some way for the turbulent shock of the central section, with its wildly jarring cross rhythms. The players put extreme breaks on for almost inaudible chords that preface the return of the opening music: another risk, but a heartstoppingly successful one. And the first violin/cello conversation of decoration surrounding the swelling, almost throbbing inner parts brought a stunning performance of this movement to a close.

In contrast, the Scherzo had great energy and pace, with the lower instruments taking full advantage of their drone-like double stopping to add further rhythmic drive. In the second half of this section, Schubert passes ideas around the instruments, and the sense of fun and enjoyment in the communication between the players was most evident here. In contrast, the unusual 4/4 time Trio was spacious and nostalgic, with a sadness not often extracted from its apparent simplicity.

It has been said that by the finale, Schubert had perhaps run out of ideas rather, as the shortest of the work’s four movements is ostensibly a lively sonata-rondo in the ‘Hungarian’ idiom, with an infectious dance theme. Yet as so often with Schubert, this ignores the subtleties of his major/minor harmonic ambiguity, and the strikingly unsettling insertion of a D flat before the final C major chord. Neary and the Elias Quartet once again are wise to these complexities, so that whilst they gave the dance tasteful upbeat lifts, they never allowed the rustic flavour to stray into pastiche. The cello duet that appears here, an echo of the first movement, once again had sweetness and warmth, whereas the race of the final acceleration to the end had more than a hint of aggression.

This was a captivating and moving performance of a work that should never feel just safely beautiful. Its beauty is in its emotional range, and Neary and the Elias Quartet successfully took us through that full range in a fine performance and a worthy conclusion to this year’s Chamber Music Proms.