If, like any sensible person, you love the string quartets of Joseph Haydn with a passion beyond all reason, you would have done well to be at the Library of Congress on Friday night. The Elias Quartet — a youngish, much-admired outfit out of Britain — was in town, and opened its rather spectacular recital with the Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2: the last (and maybe the greatest) quartet Haydn wrote.
The Elias players don’t have a particularly rich sound — the word “astringent” comes to mind — but they make up for it with deft phrasing, a fine sense of dramatic pacing and seamless ensemble work. But even more impressive was the interpretive complexity they brought to the Haydn, a perfectly balanced mix of vitality, depth, formal elegance and that playful, flirtatious wit that makes all of Haydn’s quartets so impossible to resist.
There’s not a lot of flirtatious wit in Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, Op. 28.” It’s better described as a “voiceless requiem in 15 parts” (as lead violinist Sarah Bitloch put it), and it’s steeped in almost unbearable sorrow. But it’s a delicately beautiful work as well, whose concise, resonant fragments blossom into perfect little haikus of sound, as if the mysteries of the universe were being whispered into your ears. The Elias players turned in a subtle, intricately detailed reading.
The evening closed with Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2, one of the great “Razumovsky” quartets. The Elias players’ rather bright sound — which served them so well in the Haydn and Kurtag — may have been a slight drawback here, but it was a bold, often thrilling performance nonetheless, from the cosmic meditations of the “Molto Adagio” (which Beethoven said he wrote after “contemplating the harmony of the spheres”) to the galloping “Presto” that closes the work. But some of the most purely enchanting music of the evening came in the encore, a Scottish “Lament for Mulroy” by Donald Grant, the ensemble’s second violinist.
Brookes is a freelance writer.