Thursday, November 12, 2015

For the Ensemble Music Society, the Elias String Quartet flanks two delightful Scottish folk medleys with two Beethoven monuments

The Elias Quartet opened doors to Beethoven and traditional Scottish music.
Wrapping up what has been an inevitable project for many well-established string quartets, the Elias Quartet this year finished recording its complete Beethoven 16, according to its website.

The United Kingdom-based ensemble presented two of them Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society.

The pairing of Op. 18, no. 1 in F major with Op. 132 in A minor is an inspired choice. The ambitious nature of what its number inaccurately suggests was Beethoven's first quartet  looks forward in a way the composer couldn't have foreseen. The most autobiographical of the late quartets, the A minor, embraces simplicity and complexity in a manner governed by Beethoven's host of maladies, among which his eventually total deafness isolated him most.

It was evident from the way the quartet — sisters Sara and Marie Bitlloch (first violin and cello, respectively), second violinist Donald Grant, and violist Martin Saving — played the F major's slow movement that it had the control and sensitivity to render inward-looking music compelling. This would stand it in good stead in the centerpiece of op. 132, the Molto adagio-Andante movement, with its twofold journey from sickness to convalescence, all of it headed by the formidable title,"Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent in the Lydian Mode."

As dramatic as that scenario is, the music is laid out over such a generous span that the composer's health crisis is seen from within as a struggle largely eschewing musical drama, despite an operatic recitative showcase for the first violin. We have instead one of those profound states of being Beethoven represented as he approached the end of life by masterly elaboration of small ideas. Exploring drama in musical terms was mostly what he developed to new heights in his earlier quartets. Even these feature expansive plateaus of reflection, as in the Andante of the third "Rasumovskiy" quartet (in C, op. 59, no. 3), with its hypnotic pizzicato cello patterns.

The trick in holding the listener's interest in the middle movement of op. 132 is rendering serious illness and recovery — in which our emotions are heightened but made static by uncertain progress — with enough vigor to make for a satisfactory performance. It's a little akin to what a good Violetta has to manage in the last act of "La Traviata." If not focused on drama per se, the A minor is a personal character study, full of textural contrast and energy that keeps drawing you in. The Elias displayed the capacity to reveal this consistently.

 First violinist Sara Bitlloch noted in remarks from the stage her continuing amazement that Beethoven could write such works when completely deaf. To me, even more stunning is the possibility, for which evidence is mixed, that after 1815 the nonhearing composer's world was not silent, but one in which progressive deafness produced the whistling and buzzing he complained of as early as 1801, a phenomenon we would today call tinnitus. Imagine exercising your grasp of musical pitch and how one combines with another against persistent interference from within your head, and somehow creating imperishable music despite the noise!

Speaking of sound, I worried that the Elias was a little too good at understatement in the F major quartet; its sound was often in danger of receding, despite the high quality of what could be heard. This turned out to have an explanation: Ensemble Music president John Failey also noticed the problem, and arranged for the hall's acoustic curtains to be adjusted to project the quartet's playing better in the second half.

Nonetheless, perhaps through the attractive presentation by the quartet's Scottish member, Donald Grant, a couple of sets of Scottish folk tunes he arranged (including two or three originals) were vivid and charming before the intermission. His singing of a nonsense Gaelic song to begin a reel in the second set was as nimble as his fiddling. The settings usually thrust his violin forward, but the accompaniments were themselves enlivening and never perfunctory.

The final tune, a lament for soldiers killed in an ancient battle, seemed oddly appropriate for a concert on Veterans Day — originally Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the First World War, in which the German foe dubbed Scotland's ferocious kilted regiments "ladies from hell."