City of London Festival – Elias String Quartet [Carl Vine & Beethoven’s Harp Quartet]

String Quartet No.4
String Quartet in E flat, Op.74 (Harp)

Elias String Quartet [Sara Bitlloch & Donald Grant (violins), Martin Saving (viola) & Marie Bitlloch (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 30 June, 2011
Venue: St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street, London EC2

Elias String Quartet. Photograph:  Benjamin EalovegaAs the Elias String Quartet’s second violinist Donald Grant helpfully informed the audience in a brief introduction, the Fourth String Quartet of Carl Vine has been a feature of the group’s repertory for some time. It fitted snugly into the programme here, forming part of the City of London Festival’s examination of ‘Trading Places’, looking at the music of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Vine (born 1954) is a composer who enjoys writing in traditional forms. COLF has chosen him as a featured composer alongside Brett Dean, Peter Sculthorpe and Percy Grainger.

The Festival again gives its audiences the chance to explore some of the City’s rarely opened venues as well as some of its most celebrated, and operates with two concerts every weekday evening. These constitute an early, hour-long recital from a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, followed by a full-length concert in one of the magnificent livery halls or state buildings. St Lawrence Jewry, next to the Guildhall, was the airy setting for this recital, but its acoustic proved an occasional stumbling block during the faster passages of Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ String Quartet. In the Vine, however, it was ideal, this expressive and sometimes expansive utterance given a passionate performance. Particularly striking is the slower chorale music in the work’s second half, written as part of a reaction against the war in Iraq, pause for thought being taken in the form of a distinctive, slow-moving melody. Against this the fast music is fraught and anguished, less distinctive in its material but showing the influence of Bartók and Shostakovich.

The Beethoven was more successful when the players were more obviously using light and shade, as some of the faster passages in the otherwise bright and breezy first movement were lost to the echo. The Adagio, qualified by non troppo, was nonetheless quite fast, its initial statements in the major key not always communicating as strongly as they might have done, but the ‘sighing’ motif in the minor was more affecting as it passed between the four instruments. These thoughts were banished in a vivacious scherzo, its trio bringing a glorious outburst from the cello of Marie Bitlloch, while the finale’s variations had plenty of character, whether in the vigorous ensemble passages or in Martin Saving’s subtly delivered solo in the fourth variation.

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