Proms 2011 – Elias String Quartet & Julian Bliss [Sally Beamish world premiere]

Fantasia in F; Fantasia in C minor
Reed Phases (String Quartet No.3) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 25 July, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Elias String Quartet. Photograph:  Benjamin EalovegaIn a generous programme running more than a third of its specified length of an hour, the Elias String Quartet included the world premiere of Sally Beamish’s third string quartet. Entitled Reed Stanzas, the work draws on two principal strands of inspiration – the Celtic fiddle-playing of the Elias’s Donald Grant and the composer’s memories of the vast reed beds near Aldeburgh, her previous home. Also making itself known in the music was the scenery of Harris, an island in the Outer Hebrides, where she now lives, characterised by the persistent calls of the lapwing assigned to the first violin.

Grant it was who held the spotlight initially, playing solo in a highly effective opening passage drawing on his freeform playing, beginning offstage and walking slowly through to join his colleagues. There was then an exquisite tension between the ‘playing by ear’ approach and the composer’s written notation. The music occupies this tightrope largely in the higher register before broadening out to a more comprehensive climax, given in unison. Up to this point the lapwing’s calls were frequent and insistent, beautifully played by Sara Bitlloch who jabbed them into the other material. It was Grant’s haunting theme, though, that brought the piece to a pianissimo close. ‘Reed Stanzas’ proved a most successful fusion of elements from West Scotland and East Anglia, with a clear deference to Benjamin Britten but an individual take on folk-music through the eyes of a classical composer.

Prior to this we heard two of Purcell’s extraordinary Fantasias, which enjoyed the composer’s daringly dissonant harmonies, using vibrato to stress only the most important notes while staying well within the spirit of a viol consort.

To close the concert the Elias Quartet was joined by Julian Bliss for Brahms’s wonderful Clarinet Quintet. Bliss played gracefully but was occasionally overpowered by the string-players in the faster writing, particularly in the more vigorous variations of the finale. There were also a few choppy moments in the first movement exposition, as the players sought balance between the upper and middle parts. The third movement was a highlight, however, a fluid intermezzo, while the five musicians showed exemplary control in the Adagio, given slightly quicker than most performances but sweetly phrased and fleet of foot in its central più lento episode. Just occasionally Bitlloch employed portamento in her more expressive melodies, a technique that began to cloy towards the end. The finale’s variations were initially given with a smile, and took a balletic turn in the fourth one, with generous rubato successfully employed, and the dark richness with which the final chord sounded brought the piece effectively to a close.

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