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Photo Credit: Ettore Causa

“Magic moments abound … this remarkable ensemble’s ability to live and breathe each phrase with an enraptured sensitivity proves revelatory.” — The Strad

Making its 92Y debut, the Elias String Quartet was formed when its members were all students at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. It has garnered rave reviews around the globe, particularly for its Beethoven cycles, presented throughout the UK and US and recorded at Wigmore Hall.

The Quartet’s 92Y program is inspired by fugues. Fugal elements are heard in Purcell’s Fantasias, and they surround the central slow movement of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, The concert then hurtles toward one of the greatest, and most challenging, fugues ever written: The Grosse Fuge finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13.

Elias String Quartet 
     Sara Bitlloch, violin
     Donald Grant, violin
     Martin Saving, viola
     Marie Bitlloch, cello


PURCELL: Fantasia No. 9 in A minor, Z. 740
PURCELL: Fantasia No. 11 in G major, Z. 742
BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 4
BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge finale, Op. 133 

 

 

Corresponding Class: Sun, Feb 12: Beethoven: The Grosse Fuge

► Elias String Quartet plays Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 33

Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

PURCELL: Fantasia No. 9 in A minor, Z. 740; Fantasia No. 11 in G major, Z. 742

HENRY PURCELL
Born in London, ca. September 10, 1759; died in London, November 21, 1695
Fantasia No. 9 in A minor, Z. 740
Fantasia No. 11 in G major, Z. 742
Composed in 1680; 8 minutes


Born into a prosperous, well-connected musical family in London, Purcell cut his teeth as a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal, where his father was employed as a singer. Precocious and well liked, he rose quickly through the ranks of Charles II’s musical household, becoming organist at Westminster Abbey at age 20. He served both the Anglican Charles and the Catholic James II in various capacities, from court composer to instrument keeper and tuner, and retained a connection with the royal establishment to the end of his life. Purcell achieved mastery in virtually every realm of composition, from deeply felt religious music to vividly dramatic theatrical works, and from simple songs to intricately wrought chamber music. The 36-year-old composer was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1695, a few months after the funeral of Queen Mary, for which he composed some of his most sublime music. An anthology of his songs published three years later gave him the mythological sobriquet by which he is known to history: Orpheus Britannicus, or “the “British Orpheus.”

In the course of his duties as a court musician, Purcell was called upon to provide an abundance of sacred anthems and music for the Anglican service, as well as celebratory odes for royal homecomings, marriages, and other festive occasions. In addition, he composed consort music for the violinists and viol players associated with the so-called Private Musick, who entertained the monarch at leisure in his private residence at the palace. This varied chamber repertoire ranged from harpsichord suites and Italianate trio sonatas to richly contrapuntal fantasias for viol consorts of varying sizes. In the summer of 1680, Purcell wrote no fewer than nine four-part Fantasias that sit equally well in the modern string quartet register. The exercise may have been intended to polish his skill in the art of counterpoint, since the viol consort was rapidly falling out of fashion and it seems unlikely that there were enough players left at court to make up even a viol quartet.

All nine fantasias exhibit the same basic elements, with four voices moving independently, and occasionally clashing harmonically, in alternating slow and fast sections. Purcell employs various contrapuntal devices, notably imitation (repeating the same music in a different voice), inversion (turning a theme upside down), and augmention (repeating the same music in longer note values). The Fantasia in A minor is notable for its thematic economy: the entire five-minute piece is based on two short motives. After a leisurely preamble, the tempo picks up, with the three upper voices playing the descending four-note theme in different note values, while the bass darts off on a more syncopated path. The G-major Fantasia — as light and airy as the A-minor Fantasia is intense and gloom-ridden — opens with pairs of voices set off in contrary motion. The second section is a cunning patchwork of imitative entries that cascade over one another in a merry romp.

© 2016, Harry Haskell

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BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 4

BÉLA BARTÓK
Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died in New York City, September 26, 1945

String Quartet No. 4
Composed in 1928; 23 minutes

Bartók was born in Transylvania in 1881 and died in New York City 64 years later. In a manner of speaking, he was exiled twice — first from his homeland and later from his time. Although Bartók’s music is rooted in Middle European folk traditions and late-19th-century impressionism, it was forged in the harsh crucible of the early 20th century. The six string quartets he composed between 1908 and 1939 chart a course from the colorfully impassioned romanticism of his early period to the bleak pessimism of his late works. Befitting their status as modern classics, the quartets have been subjected to microscopic analysis touching on every aspect of the composer's musical language, from the finest points of pitch structure to large-scale formal organization. For the average listener, however, the most immediately striking aspect of Bartók’s highly distinctive sound world may well be his prodigious inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere and the captivating sonorities he coaxes from the four instruments.

The latter quality, in particular, is much in evidence in the Third and Fourth Quartets, written in 1927 and 1928, respectively. Bartók had recently heard a performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite and fallen under the spell of its richly coloristic atmosphere. At the same time, he was searching for new formal structures with which to present his innovative musical ideas. He had long been interested in organic musical processes, whereby the various movements of a work were unified by the recurring use of short rhythmic, melodic or harmonic motifs. This concept underpins the Fourth Quartet, for which Bartók devised a variant of the arch, or bridge, design that he had employed in a number of earlier works. Its five movements are related both structurally and thematically, as the composer pointed out in a preface to the published score:

The slow movement is the nucleus of the piece, the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it. The fourth movement is a free variation of the second one, and the first and fifth movements have the same thematic material. Metaphorically speaking, the third movement is the kernel, movements I and V are the outer shell, and movements II and IV are, as it were, the inner shell.

Although structural analysis provides a convenient framework for playing and listening to the Fourth Quartet, it doesn’t tell us much about the inner life of this powerfully expressive music. For instance, Bartók’s observation that the first movement is in tripartite sonata form, with a traditional exposition, development and recapitulation, hardly begins to describe the multifarious activity of the emphatic six-note motif, rising and falling (and vice versa), that binds the heterogeneous musical fabric together. Nor does it do justice to the strangeness of Bartók’s swooping glissandos and shuddering tremolos, the amorphous skittering of the second movement, the impassioned, rhapsodic declamations of the third movement, the slithering, metallic pizzicatos of the fourth movement, or the sheer visceral impact of the finale’s stomping dance rhythms.

© 2016, Harry Haskell

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BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge finale, Op. 133

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born in Bonn, baptized December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge finale, Op. 133

Composed in 1825-26; 49 minutes

Having toiled mightily to bring the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony to completion in the early 1820s, Beethoven returned in 1824 to the intimate chamber music medium that had occupied him so fruitfully at the outset of his career. Whether or not he made a conscious decision to devote his final years almost exclusively to writing string quartets, there is little doubt that he regarded his five so-called late quartets — Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135 — as the capstone of his life’s work. The language of these knotty, inward-looking masterpieces, with its radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships and bold reconfiguration of musical time and space, exerted a seminal influence on composers as diverse as Schumann, Bartók and Shostakovich.

The Quartet in B-flat major is the last of three quartets that Beethoven wrote for the cello-playing Russian prince Nikolai Golitsin in 1825-26. It followed hard on the heels of Op. 132, with its majestic and deeply felt slow movement that Beethoven had offered as a “sacred song of thanksgiving” upon recovering from a severe intestinal ailment. In fact, the most lighthearted of the B-flat-major Quartet’s six movements — the lively danza tedesca, or German dance — was originally earmarked for Op. 132. It is also one of two movements — the other being the darkly urgent Presto — that Vienna’s illustrious Schuppanzigh Quartet encored by popular demand at the first performance of the piece on March 21, 1826.

The version of the Op. 130 Quartet heard on that occasion climaxed in a titanic fugue that served as a counterweight to the first movement, a “serious and heavy-going” piece by the composer's own admission. Both adjectives apply in spades to the dense, closely argued, and somewhat enigmatic Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue), which one bewildered reviewer pronounced as “incomprehensible as Chinese.” When Beethoven’s publisher complained that the fugue would deter potential customers, he obligingly replaced it with a more conventional finale. The Grosse Fuge was subsequently issued as a freestanding opus.

After the slow, richly textured introduction, a flurry of 16th notes in the first violin seems to signal the start of a conventional sonata-form allegro. But the bursts of almost manic energy are repeatedly interrupted, and that, plus the sharp contrasts of rhythm, dynamics, and tonality, gives the opening movement of Op. 130 a decidedly mercurial character. The Presto, in rounded ABA form, similarly veers between extremes: the jaunty triple-time midsection in B-flat major is sandwiched between statements of a nervous, tautly compressed tune in the parallel minor key. In the third movement, marked Poco scherzoso (somewhat playful), Beethoven weaves an intricate tapestry of themes and motifs with a combination of elegance and whimsy.

The quartet’s loosely structured, suite-like format continues with a slightly buffoonish German dance in G major. A series of swooning phrases in 3/8 meter, neatly apportioned into three groups of eight bars each, give way to smoothly interlocking roulades and a display of acrobatics by the first violin before returning at the end in fragmented form. The tender, ravishingly melodious Cavatina, suffused with the warmth of E-flat major, serves as a lyrical counterweight to the uncompromising intensity of the Grosse Fuge.

Beethoven’s original finale makes heavy demands on the listener, though it’s unlikely to faze anyone who knows the quartets of, say, Bartók or Schoenberg. The subject of the fugue — a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps — is both simple and, once heard, impossible to miss. The four players present it in unison at the beginning, with dramatic accents and pauses. A quiet interlude of a more searching character leads to the fugue proper, which breaks out at a gallop in jagged, energetic rhythms. “Partly free, partly in strict counterpoint,” as Beethoven indicates in the score, the fugue is divided into clearly defined sections of varied textures, meters, and tonalities. As in any fugue, part of the fun is listening for the theme as it darts in and out of the tightly knit musical fabric, like a golden thread.

© 2016, Harry Haskell

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Artist Bio

Elias String Quartet

The Elias String Quartet (Sara Bitlloch, violin; Donald Grant, violin; Martin Saving, viola; Marie Bitlloch, cello) is internationally acclaimed as one of the leading ensembles of their generation. Known for its intense and vibrant performances, the Quartet has travelled the globe collaborating with some of the finest musicians and playing in the world’s great halls.

In 2015, the Quartet completed its groundbreaking Beethoven Project: performing and recording the complete string quartets of Beethoven. Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and performed in 11 major venues in the UK, the Quartet has also recorded the cycle for the “Wigmore Hall Live” record label. The set includes six albums, and the first was released in January 2015. The Elias also took all-Beethoven programs to Carnegie Hall and San Francisco Performances. They have documented their journey on a dedicated website supported by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust: .

The Beethoven project is part of a recording catalogue that has been met with widespread critical acclaim. This past January the Quartet released its second disc of Mendelssohn string quartets. They have also released a Britten disc, French harp music with harpist Sandrine Chatron, Goehr’s Piano Quintet with Daniel Becker and Schumann and Dvořák Piano Quintets with Jonathan Biss. .

The Elias Quartet is passionate about new music and has premiered pieces by Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Matthew Hindson and Timo Andres. The Quartet members worked with Henri Dutilleux on his String Quartet, “Ainsi la Nuit” and recently recorded Huw Watkin’s In My Craft or Sullen Art with Mark Padmore.

The Quartet takes its name from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, of which Elias is the German form. It was formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and was chosen to participate in BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists’ Scheme 2009-11. In 2010 the Quartet was the recipient of a Borletti-Buitoni Award and the BBC Music magazine’s Newcomer of the Year Award. Its website is eliasstringquartet.com.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

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