Sunday, March 24, 2013, 4pm
Saint Anthony Park United Church of Christ
Pre-concert Discussion • 3pm
Sara Bitlloch, violin
Donald Grant, violin
Martin Saving, viola
Marie Bitlloch, cello
The Elias String Quartet take their name from Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah, of which Elias is its German form, and have quickly established themselves as one of the most intense and vibrant quartets of their generation. They perform around the world, collaborating with many different artists. The Quartet was formed in 1998 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where they worked closely with the late Dr. Christopher Rowland. They also spent a year studying at the Hochschule in Cologne with the Alban Berg quartet. Other mentors in the Quartet’s studies include Hugh Maguire, György Kurtág, Gábor Takács-Nagy, Henri Dutilleux and Rainer Schmidt.
The quartet have been chosen to participate in BBC Radio 3's prestigious New Generation Artists’ scheme and are the recipients of a 2010 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. In April 2010, their disc of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schubert on the Wigmore Hall Live label was given the BBC Music Magazine Newcomer Award. Other highlights of the 2009/10 season included a month long tour of Australia, their first visit to Italy with cellist Alice Neary and a cycle of Mendelssohn’s Chamber Music at King’s Place, London. They had their debut at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, a week long tour in Europe with pianist Jonathan Biss, appearances at The Sage Newcastle, Bridgewater Hall Manchester and the City of London, Cheltenham and East Neuk Festivals. Future projects include a five concert series at Wigmore Hall, a US tour including their Carnegie Hall debut, returning to Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and participating in Jonathan Biss's Schumann project.
With the support of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, the Elias Quartet are embarking on their Beethoven project: Learning and performing all Beethoven string quartets, with cycles starting in 2012/13 in various venues including Southampton, Bristol, Brighton, Tonbridge, London, and documenting their journey, learnings and findings on a dedicated website, www.thebeethovenproject.com
They have performed alongside artists such as Michael Collins, Jonathan Biss, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Ralph Kirshbaum, Alice Neary, Ann Murray, Joan Rogers, Mark Padmore, Roger Vignoles, Michel Dalberto, Peter Cropper, Bernard Gregor-Smith, Ettore Causa, Timothy Boulton, Robin Ireland, Adrian Brendel, Anthony Marwood and with the Endellion, Jerusalem and Vertavo Quartets.
The Quartet received second prize and the Sidney Griller prize at the 9th London International String Quartet Competition in 2003 (as the Johnston String Quartet) and were finalists in the Paolo Borciani Competition in 2005. For four years they were resident String Quartet at Sheffield’s “Music in the Round” as part of Ensemble 360, taking over from the Lindsay Quartet. The Ensemble has released discs by Mozart, Beethoven and Spohr with Sanctuary Classics and Nimbus.
The Quartet’s debut recording of Mendelssohn quartets for Sanctuary Classics received wide acclaim. Their performance of the Op. 80 quartet was chosen as best recording on BBC Radio 3's ‘Building a Library’ in September 2009. Their Wigmore Live disc, recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, has received outstanding reviews. They have also released a disc of French harp music with harpist Sandrine Chatron for the French label Ambroisie and Goehr’s Piano Quintet with Daniel Becker for Meridian Records. Their latest CD is a Britten Quartets disc, released by Sonimage.
Music in the Park Series is thrilled to present England’s Elias Quartet in their Twin Cities debut recital. This young quartet, formed in 1998 at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, has been praised on their recordings and in live performances throughout Britain, Europe, and Australia for their “imaginative, full-bodied playing and impeccable ensemble”. Violinists Sara Bitlloch and Donald Grant, violist Martin Saving, and cellist Marie Bitlloch will present quartets by Purcell and Schumann, along with Benjamin Britten’s rarely performed Third String Quartet.
|A Selection of Fantasias
No. 4 in G minor, Z. 735
No. 6 in F major, Z. 737
No. 8 in D minor, Z. 739
|String Quartet No. 3, Opus 94 (1975)
Recitative and Passacaglia, La Serenissima
|String Quartet in A minor, Opus 41, No. 1
Introduzione: Andante espressivo—Allegro
Fantasias for four voices
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Henry Purcell was celebrated during his lifetime as “the British Orpheus.” In a life little longer than Mozart’s, Purcell was as busy in Drury Lane as at Westminster Abbey. Italian was themusical language of the day, but Purcell showed in Dido and Aeneas, the first English opera, a natural ear for his native tongue. Indeed, wrote Benjamin Britten, “there seems to be nothing this composer cannot do. He was indeed the Orpheus Britannicus.”
Purcell’s twelve fantasias—thirteen, if you count the five-voice Fantasia on One Note—are scored for three or four equal parts. Most of them date from 1680. At that time, they would have been played not by string quartet, but by a “whole consort” of viols or recorders, a practice already passé in Purcell’s day. It’s unclear what prompted these little masterworks. They may simply have been counterpoint exercises. But there are elements of the fantastic within.
Each fantasia comprises three or four contrasting sections. Generally, the first section follows the stile antico tradition of vocal polyphony. There follows a slower movement, often with a theatrical manner, then a “Brisk” or “Quick” section in instrumental style. The fantasias invite close listening. No. 4 treats a subject in imitation, then presents it twice as long, then four times as long (in double augmentation). The middle section wanders through a weird harmonic maze, whereas the slow bit of No. 6 expires in a long descent. No. 8’s subject is immediately turned upside down.
String Quartet No. 3 (1975)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Britten’s lifelong passion for the music of Purcell prompted realizations of Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen,editions of Orpheus Britannicus and Harmonia Sacra. Purcell’s songs often figured in Britten’s recitals with tenor Peter Pears. Britten could have been describing his own music when he praised Purcell on the 250th anniversary of his death: “Think of his unfettered rhythms, boldly discordant harmonies, his long soaring melodies without automatic repetitions of ‘memorable’ phrases, and especially his love of the virtuoso, the operatic, and conscious exploitation of brilliant sounds.”
2013 is Britten’s centenary. His contributions to the string quartet repertoire are substantial: three numbered quartets, but also two juvenile-but-pretty-damn-good quartets and assorted pieces. And don’t forget the charming Simple Symphony, Opus 4. Mstislav Rostropovich felt that no other composer understood the nature of stringed instruments so well.
According to composer Colin Matthews, “Britten completed the first four movements of the quartet by the end of October 1975, and in November went for a holiday to Venice, where he composed the Finale.” There is much discomfort in this music, but also release. After the completion of his last opera, Death in Venice,in 1973, Britten underwent heart surgery and suffered a small stroke. He was still able to work, but his health never returned. The Quartet No. 3, like Beethoven’s great Dankgesang-quartet, Opus 132, is in five movements. But in Beethoven’s work “new strength” is felt; in Britten’s, there is anger and resignation. The atmosphere of Death in Venice pervades the quartet, made clear by the last movement’s subtitle, “La Serenissima,” a name for the “most serene” Republic of Venice.
Duets (With moderate movement)
Lapping water is palpable in this quasi-barcarole. Every pairing of instruments is explored. In Death in Venice, the failing writer Aschenbach pursues young Tadzio through the city to such music.
Ostinato (Very fast)
The Italian word for obstinate usually describes a repeated pattern or musical figure. Britten uses the term to refer to four brusque notes, one on each string, going up or down, often followed by a two-beat rest.
Solo (Very calm)
A lone figure is portrayed against the landscape. It encounters something extraordinary—and inscrutable.
Burlesque (Fast: con fuoco—Quasi ‘Trio’—Maggiore)
Such ironic music brings immediately to mind Dmitri Shostakovich, Britten’s Russian friend who died in 1975. The avian sounds coming from the viola are produced by bowing on the wrong side of the bridge.
Recitative and Passacaglia, La Serenissima.
In his Quartet No. 2, composed thirty years earlier, Britten celebrated Purcell with a monumental, unambiguously triumphant passacaglia. Here, he returns to that variation form, much favored by Purcell. The key is E major, Aschenbach’s key. A simple bass rocks back and forth, its second phrase an inversion of the first. The last D is a folksy—but foreign—note. A cantabile theme weaves through the other voices, and one hears for a moment the triadic cascades of the young Britten. “The most recognizable motif from the opera in this movement,” notes Humphrey Carpenter, “is Aschenbach’s ‘I love you,’ which is heard, in various distorted forms, again and again.” On its thirteenth round, the cello falters and subsides to the subtonic, that note that doesn’t belong. “I want the work to end with a question,” Britten said.
Britten did not live to hear the Amadeus Quartet give the first performance of the work on December 19, 1976. He died at home in Aldeburgh on December 4.
String Quartet in A minor, Opus 41, No. 1
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann tended to compose works in series. 1838 and 1839 were devoted to piano works poetic and fantastic. 1840 was the “Year of Songs,” celebrating his love for and marriage to Clara Wieck. 1842 was all about chamber music. He wrote six substantial works in as many months, including the Piano Quartet, Piano Quintet, and the Three String Quartets, Opus 41. That year also witnessed the first crisis in the Schumann’s relationship, as the couple sought to balance Clara’s career as a virtuosa with what Robert considered his “undignified position.” The pair spent six weeks apart as Clara concertized on her own. Robert sought refuge in counterpoint and score study, communing with the spirits of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
Schumann imagined the string quartet as “a by turns beautiful and even abstrusely woven conversation among four people.” In the A-minor quartet, the abstrusity begins with a melancholy idea which is never heard again. But a fanfare clears the way for the lyrical main theme in F major. That tune nudges beat two, a syncopation that will drive the entire movement. F major is an unexpected choice for a work ostensibly in A minor. But not only the first, but the third movement will inhabit that key.
The scherzo nods to Mendelssohn, the quartet’s dedicatee, and at a gallop. Its figuration will return—legato—in the slow movement. If the Adagio rings a bell, you may be recalling three key notes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Schumann winks knowingly.
Etude-like figuration abounds in the Finale, where, as in the Piano Quintet, contrapuntal mastery and compelling harmony drive the music inexorably. But wait! A rustic clarity settles on the scene, before the viola—molto animato—goes dashing through the snow to a joyful finish.
Program notes © 2013 by David Evan Thomas.