Stravinsky and Shostakovich grippingly duke it out over Beethoven at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall - Ben Ealovega
Wigmore Hall – Ben Ealovega

Elias String Quartet/Osborne, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

One signal of the New Year having really begun is that concerts are quickly shaking off their seasonal cheer, and nothing less than serious programming occupied the minds of the Elias String Quartet as they returned to the Wigmore Hall. In a cleverly focused concert, Beethoven was flanked by two great 20th-century Russian composers, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, with creative tension arising from their respective anti- and pro-Beethoven positions.

The programme’s centrepiece was Beethoven’s Quartet No 10 in E flat, nicknamed the Harp on account of the pizzicato (plucked) effects that permeate the first movement. Both its E flat tonality and compositional year of 1809 connect it to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, though it doesn’t have the same thrust as that celebrated work and instead shows Beethoven even in his middle period anticipating the musical barriers he would soon break.

Successful performances of this work depend on the interpretative cohesion of its players and here the Elias set up a sense of hushed expectancy in the stillness of the first movement’s opening before supplying surging warmth. The hymn-like slow movement was an intense, sustained outpouring, balanced out by the energy released in the scherzo and an almost playful finale.

Often overlooked on account of their brevity, the tiny masterpieces comprising Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet made a welcome opening to the evening. Again, the context of these 1914 miniatures, coming after Stravinsky’s three most celebrated ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring), explains the folk influences of the the first movement’s drones and some hard modernist edges, but they show new directions too. The Elias produced magnificently concentrated sound in the sombre murmurings – like  Russian Orthodox chant – of the final piece.

The Elias were joined after interval by the outstanding pianist Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Context tells us less about this 1940 score: despite the war, it sounds like abstract music – though you can never be quite sure with Shostakovich – and is full of Beethovenian striving. The piano anchors this work, literally so at the start where it sets everything in motion, and Osborne was central to this imposing performance.

That said, some of the most interesting textures involve the strings alone, especially in the disembodied fugue of the second movement and the stark, searing dialogues – first between violin and cello, then violin and viola – of the fourth movement. But piano and strings combined in the galloping scherzo and finale to brilliantly brittle effect. JA

Further details of season: wigmore-hall.org.uk

Published by anthonyhayble

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