Music fans love to get the whole picture. We consume box-sets, bootlegs, alternate takes, and artist interviews – all in the name of completeness. Some people say a good CD library should have at least three Eroicas and five Fifths to be complete, while music magazines might recommend more. Of course, live music venues have their own shot at completeness when they schedule a “cycle”. Cycles promise to show us the whole of something, as long as we’re willing to show up to the venue, buy tickets, and pay attention – a very appealing notion. One of the characteristics of the cycle is that by its very nature it structures the artist’s oeuvre into a narrative package we can easily identify – usually a Beginning, Middle and End affair. And so it is with the Elias Quartet’s “Beethoven Project”. Conveniently enough, Beethoven’s quartet output has long been categorised into Early, Middle and Late – terms which fit the cycle model perfectly.

Elias String Quartet © David Shapiro
Elias String Quartet
© David Shapiro

The Elias Quartet are presenting its cycle at Turner Sims over a period of two years, in the form of six concerts. Each installment features an early, a middle and a late quartet, and tonight’s concert began with the (early) Quartet in A, Op. 18 no. 5. It’s a very entertaining piece, which engages throughout. The first two movements are fairly light, Mozartian affairs, where the form is clear and the melodies are memorable. The Elias’ lightness of touch, and extremely dry, tight sound was arresting in its diversion from the typical Beethoven performance practice. The playing was so delicate and so quiet, that with each rallentando and each “feminine ending” there was a real sense of tension. So when the Elias’ began adding cheeky accents and shock fortes, the audience could enjoy a moment of relief. Not quite the redemptive climaxes of Beethoven’s later works, but a most powerful effect, almost entirely conjured up by the performers.

When the quartet first appeared in 1801, there were some critics who found the work too difficult for their tastes. With hindsight we can dismiss this as arch conservatism, given the relatively easy air of the piece. But there is a little depth, perhaps beyond the leagues of Haydn, in the third movement. Thankfully the Elias Quartet did not attempt to imbue the Cantabile with much Beethovian anguish, opting instead to highlight the standout oom-pah section and the violins’ double trills.

The groundbreaking Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 contrasted splendidly with the early work, as we knew it would in the right hands.The Elias’ ability to play in two completely different styles was necessary to the programme but still very rewarding. Presumably it comes as a result of Beethoven having “taken over their lives” – an uncomfortable insight they related to us as they introduced themselves. The opening Adagio requires balance more than anything, and the quartet carefully ensured there were no excessive protuberances – an approach they also employed in the maudlin Adadio quasi un poco andante, right up to the point where it basically explodes into the Allegro. It’s tempting to characterise this as “keeping it simple”, but I’d imagine that playing such emotional music with a high degree of control is a real test of musicianship.

The variations of the Andante were played straight and true, which drew out the innocence from the material. Sadly some of Beethoven’s more oblique harmonic twists were lost in all the innocence; for instance, the short suspensions which sit in the middle of a couple of the variations didn’t exactly ache. But this is a minor complaint in the context of a great performance, particularly when the Presto that followed was so dynamic and flexible it sounded positively unstable.

The middle-period quartet for the evening was the Quartet in C, Op. 59 no. 3, from the Razumovsky collection. It’s not the most charming of pieces, and rightly the Elias Quartet did all they could to lift the second movement out of the deep, employing as much gloss as they could summon, and emphasising the first violin’ outbursts with great force. The force came naturally in the manic Allegro molto, which culminated in a fugal subject which looked challenging but sounded accomplished.

There may well be nourishing qualities to this cycle, and to cycles in general. There may well be something about completeness which reveals the artist and betrays the narrative of his work. But personally, having greatly enjoyed this marvellous concert, I’m just glad I’ll get to hear the Elias Quartet play Beethoven again and again.