Elias String Quartet performs for Ensemble Music 

The British foursome mix Scottish folk tunes with Beethoven

click to enlarge Elias String Quartet
  • Elias String Quartet

It is an unusual chamber program which offers two Beethoven quartets which bookend an arrangement of Scottish folk tunes.The Elias Quartet's second violinist Donald Grant was the arranger. He was "assisted" by first violinist Sara Bitloch, violist Martin Saving and cellist Marie Bitloch. Grant offered a potpourri of variety in his tune collection--over a span of many centuries. Lots of hustle and bustle suggestive of bluegrass music are mixed with slow, sad refrains under girded by drone support. They provided an excellently played closure to the program's first half.

While Beethoven's immortal nine symphonies are the bedrock of symphonic concert programming, his 16 string quartets equally dominate the chamber domain. They also best define his so-called three creative periods, the first six comprising his Op. 18 series (1798-99). Of these, the Elias players chose the composer's Quartet No. 1 in F. Op. 18, No. 1. It was actually the second in order of composition, but the first published. Op. 18 No. 3 in D was his first written, and in my possibly exclusive opinion, it was the best of the six, achieving a "masterwork" status--not equaled until his Quartet No. 9, Op. 59 No. 3 in C. All four movements soar with inspirational heights, it being the greatest composition Beethoven was to write within the 18th century, i.m.h.o.

But I digress. Op. 18 No. 1 represented an advance in style, but a regression in inspiration against Op. 18 No. 3, as did the remaining four Op. 18 quartets. Sara Bitloch played generally on the soft side, the opposite of more typical quartet groups dominated by the first violinist. Otherwise the Elias players gave us good ensemble work, precision and less tonal opulence than some, but which did not detract from their rendering of this particular Beethoven work.

To jump from Beethoven's early period to his late one in the second half was truly a gulf which this evening was bridged by those Scottish tunes. Their choice, Beethoven's Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132, was again published out of the order in which it was written.It came after No. 12 in E-flat, but preceded No. 13 in B-flat and No. 14 in C-sharp Minor. The shorter No. 16 in F, Op. 135 was the last composed.

Op. 132 has five movements with the middle movement another double theme and variation (compare Maher 4's slow movement), an exalted hymn-like Molto adagio in the Lydian mode (the tonic F scale played only on the white keys) interspersed with a more extroverted Andante in D major. Each of the three times the F section is given, it builds in intensity such as to bring tears to the eyes of some. Sara Bitlach played even with her partners this time, the entire group communicating Beethoven's other-worldly perorations as well as could be expected. Nov. 11; Indiana History Center

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