Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Elias Quartet and friends - Mendelssohn, 25 November 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

String Quartet no.2 in A minor, op.13
String Quintet in A major, op.18
Octet in E-flat major, op.16

Sara Bitlloch (violin)
Donald Grant (violin)
Martin Saving (viola)
Marie Bitlloch (violoncello)

Magnus Johnston (violin)
Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violin)
Ettore Causa (viola)
Alice Neary (violoncello)

From quartet to quintet to octet: upwards by opus number, though the quintet was composed in 1826, the year after the octet. That surprised me, for, never previously having heard the quintet, I should, from the evidence of my ears alone, have placed it earliest. (The octet was written earliest of all, in 1825.) With the possible exception of the opening gossamer counterpoint to the quintet’s scherzo, nevertheless lacking in the magic of its octet counterpart, I could not hear anything that truly announced Mendelssohn’s voice. The players of the Elias Quartet, plus violist Ettore Causa, caught the neo-Mozartian tone of the first movement’s opening, an apparent reversion to a stylised view of eighteenth-century decorum. This Allegro con moto was stylishly performed, without straining for non-existent depth, though the development sounded more Romantic in tone. There was nothing four-square to this account, which remained fluid in tempo: a hallmark of all three performances. The intermezzo, an 1832 replacement for the original minuet, is pleasant but anonymous, the composer’s attempts to dig deeper failing to convince. With the finale, Mendelssohn again sounded most convincing when reverting to a Mozartian or early-Beethovenian idiom. The performance was full of life, the counterpoint clear, and phrases were well turned. However, I cannot imagine rushing back to the work, not unless Mozart’s towering masterpieces in this form were somehow to vanish.

The players caught well that soft-centred version of Beethoven which characterises the introduction to the A minor quartet: akin to a non-metaphysical ‘Muß es sein?’. Transition to the quicksilver Allegro vivace was impressive, inner parts from Donald Grant and Martin Saving pulsating with life. Romantically impassioned as much of the movement sounded, it was not always entirely clear where it was heading. This was, I suspect, in good part a consequence of Sara Bitlloch’s habit, beautiful though her portamento sounded, of acting as a soloist rather than one amongst musical equals. The second movement, moreover, brought a goodly number of distracting sniffs from her chair. As a whole, this Adagio non lento did not sound so effortlessly simple as it might. There was nevertheless a splendid build up of contrapuntal intensity and a warm, Romantic sound. The intermezzo was charming, haunting even, evocative of a magical woodland scene, despite the occasional drifting apart of first violin and colleagues. Its central Allegro di molto section was less individual, but that is Mendelssohn’s fault. It was a good decision to take the finale attacca. Though I am not sure that the musical material is robust enough to take such a full-blooded approach, the players erred on the right side in that respect. The closing Adagio section, which should revert to the mood of the quartet’s opening, sounded somewhat distended.

It is the octet, of course, that is the masterpiece here. There was much to praise in this performance, yet again, the leader sounded far too much the soloist, as if she were performing in an unusually Romantic performance of the composer’s beloved violin concerto. Again, fluidity of tempo was welcome and again the inner parts – more of them here – were impressive in their vitality. There was a sense of greater, indeed symphonic scale, if without the final degree of structural cohesion that the music demands, and which members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra had brought to this work in a stunning performance at this year’s Proms. The Andante was simply too fast in its basic tempo, but at least it was not modishly rigid. However, those depths revealed at the Royal Albert Hall in August were skated over. I was delighted and relieved, during this movement, to witness an heroic member of the audience (the occupant of seat B2, just in case he is reading) turn round in exasperation at the antics of the inanely chattering occupants of C1 and C2, and finally shut them up. Such selfishness is utterly unacceptable. The scherzo was a fizzing success, though nevertheless marked by Sara Bitlloch’s soloistic approach. Donald Grant’s performance revealed itself as the more subtle and chamber-oriented. It was unfortunate that the cello opening to the finale lacked incision, but thereafter the movement received a forthright, full-bloodedly Romantic account. If anything, I wondered whether a degree more Classical poise might have been in order. At least there was nothing staid or precious to it. These were promising accounts, then, which will doubtless develop in musical maturity.