City of London Festival – Elias String Quartet

String Quartet No.1
String Quartet in F minor, Op.80

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 24 June, 2010
Venue: St Sepulchre without Newgate, Giltspur Street, London EC1

A concert of striking contrasts from the Elias String Quartet brought together Villa-Lobos’s first foray into the medium and Mendelssohn’s last.

Villa-Lobos is a featured composer for this year’s City of London Festival, part of an intriguing focus on Brazilian and Portuguese music. The ever-enterprising event retains the match of music and architecture as its principal calling card, however, and the glorious church of St Sepulchre without Newgate, located half-a-mile from St Paul’s Cathedral, provided the ideal acoustic for a string quartet performance.

The Elias Quartet exploited this to the full with an emotive and affectionate reading of the Villa-Lobos. Though not displaying all the attributes of the composer’s mature style the work, written when he was 28, brings to the fore elements of late, ‘New World’ Dvořák and early Frank Bridge. It succeeded in capturing the composer’s desire to portray a baritone singer and a small orchestra, the quartet projecting the attractive melodies to good effect, particularly when in the hands of viola-player Martin Saving.

The piece itself is somewhat episodic, though the Elias Quartet did well to unite the more disparate strands, the fugal allegro (subtitled ‘Jumping Like A Saci’) suitably emphatic in its conclusion. The real charm, however, lay in the deeply felt slower sections, where Villa-Lobos’s cantabile style had more room to operate.

Mendelssohn’s last published string quartet is also his darkest, a memoriam to his sister Fanny after her sudden death in 1847 (the year that Felix himself would also die). Cast almost unremittingly in F minor, the work is often orchestral in its scoring, with all four instruments playing together almost throughout, and the vigorous tremolos of the first movement particularly full-bodied.

The Elias musicians ensured this sound filled the church, and there was a deep sense of tragedy in the players’ performance, particularly in the dark first movement. Brief chinks of light could be glimpsed in the slow movement, where a sense of relaxation brought resignation but also a feeling of moving on, which carried through to the finale and its stormy but ultimately affirmative closing pages.

Technically this was a near-flawless performance, the Elias’s strict ensemble bringing the full extent of Mendelssohn’s energetic writing to the fore. With a grimly determined ending, it was possible to admire the strength of resolve, not just of the music, but of the composer himself.

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