The Elias Quartet conveyed each composer's piece in a way that either riled up the audience's emotions or sent them into a pensive relaxation mode. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
As the chamber concert season approaches a close, I am constantly amazed at what I learn from attending the shows. I try to place myself in the shoes of the listeners who first heard these pieces, before records, CDs, MP3s or the radio were available. With such a huge selection of music to listen to at virtually any time I want, it’s hard to imagine having to go out of my way to see a live performance. These limited listening opportunities must have been important, and it makes sense that the composers would explore a wide variety of emotions in order to provide a release not only for the composer or the players, but for all of those in attendance. The Elias Quartet was great at engaging with the audience on Thursday, performing their pieces that captivated me throughout.
Two quotes from the program notes on Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 6 stood out to me as I listened to the players perform this piece. The first, by Hans Keller, remarks that “A Haydn quartet says in 15 minutes what it takes a philosopher 600 pages to say,” making what I say about this performance almost futile compared to what listening to it will do to you. It’s pretty interesting to think about the time and location that this quartet was written (1790 in London) where religious and government reform were hot topics. Haydn used his music as a sort of diary to express what his moods and experiences have no words for, and taking it from that point of view as a listener helps to try to engage with the notes.
The first movement, “Allegro,” felt pretty cordial and appropriate for a nice gathering of friends. Which leads me to the second quote from the notes that stood out, by Goethe, who remarks why the string quartet is the most indicative of the varieties of music: “We hear four sensible persons conversing with each other, and we are led to believe that we may profit by their discourse.” Between Sara Bitloch and Donald Grant on the violin, Martin Saving on the viola and Marie Bitloch on the cello, the conversation was warmhearted and pleasant, offering a nice release of the imagined stress that Londoners dealt with in their daily lives. I particularly enjoyed Sara during “Menuetto: Allegretto” with her crane-sounding bird-song expression. This was taken to a next level toward the end of the movement with a super high pitch that probably could’ve shattered glass. This piece felt like I was following a getting-to-know-your-neighbor gathering, with lovely company and a pleasant unity when you tie the entirety together.
Before the next piece began, Sara explained the story behind Janáček’s Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters. Basically, this is his declaration of love for Kamila Stosslova, and was written during the last year of his life. “Andante” starts with a fiery intensity, and quickly switches entirely to a very soft silence, where the players were barely touching their bow to string. This contrast set at the beginning acted as a sort of pattern for the rest of the piece, which switched between the extremes of emotions felt during a love affair, especially when this one was not very much reciprocated. There’s no doubt that this dude was madly in love with the girl, as the music ventured through realms of desperation, and at times felt awfully demanding.
There’s no way you could listen to this music in the background: Janáček stresses your attention to an extreme. During “Adagio,” things sort of mellowed out, but still had moments of high anxiety. Marie on the cello used such force on the strings that she created a unique, radio-type fuzz, with that loud severity of his emotions translated in the pressure. “Moderato” felt like someone yelling to get the attention of someone ignoring you, and was based on the emotions of the potential of having a child. “Allegro” finally mellows out and ends on an uplifting note, perhaps written with hope for the future, or perhaps the two got back together—we don’t really know.
The final piece, Schumann’s Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 concluded the evening allowing ease to relax, contrasted with the bipolarity of the earlier intimate letters. “Introduzione: Andante espressivo; Allegro” felt like two or three movements in one as it started slowly, and changed abruptly to a more enthusiastic melody. “Scherzo: Presto; Intermezzo” was a highlight, as it was so light and airy that it felt like I was floating on a boat in a lake while watching the clouds pass by. “Adagio” continued right where the previous movement left off, with just a slightly slower beat, which is contrasted with the final movement, “Presto,” which felt brisk and noble.
The Bennewitz Quartet will be the final chamber concert for the season, and will take place on April 17. Find more information at cmsofslc.org.