Classical review: Elias String Quartet - Cairns Church, Milngavie

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A THOUGHT occurred to me on Friday. If the Elias String Quartet had played Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge side by side without mention of what they were, which would have seemed the more extreme, the more modern?

That is to assume, of course, that the large audience at Milngavie Music Club might not have known the latter, which was clearly not the case among the seasoned members of this thriving 70-year-old club. But nonetheless, such was the cliff-edge intensity of the Elias’s performance of the Beethoven – and the entire Op 130 Quartet which the tortuous fugue formed the original finale to – that even to familiar ears it bore a kick strong enough to rattle 21st-century ears.

The entire Beethoven performance was gripping, from the helter-skelter of the Presto to the subdued, molten expression of the Cavatina. And as it played out, thoughts were cast back to Haydn’s early Op 20 C major Quartet, which opened the programme, and seeds – the bold unison recitatives and fugal peroration (albeit more succinct in Haydn’s case) among them – that resurface “in extremis” in Beethoven.

Beamish’s Reed Stanzas proved no less refreshing. It opens with a traditional-style Scots lament, introduced initially off-stage by Scots-born second violinist Donald Grant. But when Beamish shrouds it in shimmering harmonies, played by the rest of the Quartet, it really gets interesting. Birdsong and delicate whiffs of nature sounds colour this beautifully evocative work.

Rating: ****