Here’s another first for the Sheldonian — the premiere performance by the Elias String Quartet in their marathon journey through the entire cycle of Beethoven string quartets. Taking two years to complete, the cycle will tour all over the country, returning to Oxford under the auspices of Music at Oxford as each new group of quartets is presented.
The Elias Quartet — sisters Sara and Marie Bitlloch (first violin and cello), Donald Grant (second violin), and Martin Saving (viola) — began work on the cycle two-and-a-half years ago. Not for nothing are the Beethoven quartets described as “a lifetime’s work”, and that’s true for composer, performer, and listener. Correspondingly, the Eliases selected quartets from three different periods in Beethoven’s life for the first recital.
The early Quartet in A major, Op 18, No 5 quickly revealed the Eliases’ ability to seize an audience’s ears and imaginations. The dancing atmosphere of the opening Allegro was delivered with infectious fluidity and clarity. The following minuet can sound pernickety, but here the music came over as spontaneous, yet at the same time painstakingly prepared and detailed. The Andante demonstrated the Eliases’ skill ability to play incredibly softly, yet still hold the musical line.
Hair-raising softness was required, too, at the start of the C major, Op 59, No 3 quartet. This quartet, written for Count Rasoumovsky and full of shifting moods, needs — and here received — a virtuosic performance.
The last work played, the late Quartet in C sharp Minor, Op 131, was described by Beethoven himself as: “Various bits filched from here and there”, and it’s certainly a kaleidoscope of ever-changing keys, speeds, and dynamics. The Eliases delivered a robust performance, confirming that their onward journey thorough the Beethoven quartets is going to be both exploratory, and anything but dull.