By Don Heckman
Ashland, Oregon. The Elias String Quartet was the headliner Friday night at the SOU Music Recital Hall — the last ensemble in the Chamber Music Concerts 2014-2015 schedule of stellar string quartet performances. And the CMC couldn’t have made a better choice to top off their string quartet season.
The string quartet programs were, without exception, definitive displays of classical quartet music, surveying the repertoire – and beyond – with captivating performances. And the Elias ensemble was the perfect finalist on a list of extraordinary groups that also included the Tesla, Hugo Wolf and Daedalus Quartets.
The Elias players – Sara Bitlloch and Donald Grant, violins; Martin Saving, Viola; Marie Bitlloch cello – added to the Friday program’s superlative qualities by performing works by Mozart, Beethoven and contemporary composer Henri Dutilleux.
The program opened with Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major, KV 465. It’s the last in a group of six quartets influenced by, and in some respects competitive with, Haydn’s six Opus 33 quartet. It is a superb example of Mozart’s mastery of classical string quartet composition.
Interestingly, the opening Adagio-Allegro drew some gasps of surprise from the audience. Their responses underscored why the title “Dissonance” was long ago bestowed upon the Quartet in C Major. But dissonance and chromaticism in the hands of Mozart are experiences to remember. And the Elias players Illuminated the experience with a blend of timbres that brought irresistible energies to Mozart’s dense harmonic textures. By the time they reached the dynamic final Allegro molto, the more light-hearted Mozart had taken over, pouring out buoyant passages seasoned with occasional traces of the opening dissonance. Here, too, the Elias players moved in a symbiotic linkage with the final Mozart musical delights.
Dutilleux’s “Ainsi La Nuit” (“Thus the Night”), a seven movement work, took a very different slant on string quartet composition. Finished in 1976, it can hardly be called an Impressionistic work. But Dutilleux has provided descriptive titles such as Miroir d’espace, Constellations and Temps suspendu for each of the piece’s seven movements. From a listener’s point of you the titles offered somewhat of a reference point. However “Ainsi La Nuit” with its reference to night music, is a more accurate narrative to describe the surprisingly evocative sounds – at times orchestral in nature — Dutilleux drew from the quartet instrumentation. And here, too, the Elias Quartet responded impressively with the far-reaching range of stringed instrument techniques called for in Dutilleux’s colorful score.
Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-Sharp minor. OP. 131 climaxed the program, as Beethoven works do so well. The challenges it provided for the Elias players were far different from those of the Dutilleux work. But they were compelling examples of the dramatic changes Beethoven was bringing to the classical music of the early 19th century. In the talented hands of the Elias Quartet it was no less than gripping to hear Grant, Saving and the Bitlloch sisters soar through Beethoven’s sprightly fugues, touching melodies and consistently creative development passages.
One more event remains on the Chamber Music Concerts 2014-2015 season: a vocal performance by baritone Christopheron Nomura on Friday, April 24. Beyond that, here’s looking toward another great Chamber Music Concerts season to begin in the Fall.