Elias String Quartet: concert review

Sunday 14 September 2014: ‘Saving the best till last’

Elias String Quartet

Elias String Quartet

The last concert in a Cratfield season brings with it mixed emotions.  Just as the first concert always brings hope and anticipation of the good things to come, so the last hints at the end of summer, with the churchyard strewn with gleaming chestnuts and the sun just that little bit lower in the sky – the end, of course, of another season.  And what a season it’s been, with a wonderful mix of musical styles and a cunning mingling of familiar and unfamiliar music so that our ears are alternately soothed and provoked.

Yes, a wonderful season – but how did it end?  Let me come out right away and say that the Elias provided probably the single most satisfying concert of the whole season. We began with a sparkling account of Haydn’s ‘Bird’ quartet, op 33 no 3, a piece that always leaves the audience smiling.  Light, witty, elegant – all the things you expect from Haydn.  The concert closed with a poetic account of Beethoven’s first op 59 Razumovsky quartet, where the sheer beauty of Marie Bitlloch’s cello playing in particular brought out the intense emotion of this sublime work.

This was exquisite. But for sheer excitement, the highlight of the concert was Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas.  Long based in Scotland, Beamish uses what she calls ‘a Celtic-inspired theme’ as the basis for a set of variations that simultaneously recall the wild landscape of Harris where she lives and the (more familiar to Cratfield patrons) whispering reed-beds of Snape, where she often performed in her earlier career as a violist.  The music is indescribably haunting, with the plangent sound of curlew and redshank rising above long meditative lines of melody.  There’s a stillness and calm about the music that is almost religious and thus particularly appropriate for Cratfield.  The theme is first played offstage by a solo violin. Donald Grant is himself a traditional Scottish fiddle player and as he slowly advanced into the church to join the other members of the quartet the attentive silence in the church was electric.  At the end of the piece the theme returns, transformed by the variations it’s been put through, rather like the aria in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  All in all, Reed Stanzas is a remarkable achievement and one’s astonishment at discovering that it has never been recorded is only mitigated by the fact that the Elias Quartet plan to fill that gap.

So, a final concert that summed up the best of Cratfield and epitomised what makes it different from similar concert series:  the combination of masterpieces of the classical chamber repertoire with the best of contemporary composition.  The outline programme for 2015 is out now (click here) and looks just as intriguing as 2014’s.  Only ten months to wait!

Alan McLean

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