When you live in London, with the convenience of sophisticated halls and world-class concerts on tap, it’s maybe perverse to take successively delayed trains to a village out on the Welsh borders to hear Beethoven played in a church with hard pews. But it’s just what I’ve done, because there can be a peculiar energy about music in unlikely places – a sense of focus and intention rarely present in the routine of a concert hall. And it was evident last week at Whittington, a tiny village beyond Oswestry, which was hosting some of the most epic chamber music in the repertoire, performed to serious standards.
The occasion was the Whittington Festival, an event run by the cellist James Barralet who has family connections down there. The performers were drawn mostly from the supercharged young stars he knows from playing Prussia Cove, the chamber music hothouse down in Cornwall. And central to the roster were the fêted Elias String Quartet – who cut their teeth as BBC New Generation Artists, and have since recorded reams of Beethoven for the Wigmore Live label.
It was Beethoven again at Whittington – where this year’s programme was devoted to him, nothing but, for five days. You could fairly call it an intense experience. But the concerts were packed out, and the performances were stunning.
The Elias don’t deliver the most polished sound. There’s no cosmetic sheen to what they do. It’s gritty, sometimes raw with self-exposure. But it’s also truthful, totally committed, and uncompromisingly direct.
At Whittington they tackled some of the most challenging of Beethoven’s quartets, including the late, great Op 130, complete with the so-called Grosse Fuge, which the composer wrote as its original finale but then removed on the grounds that it was too Grosse for audiences to cope with.
There was no attempt to hide the challenge: it was a white-knuckle ride that demonstrated what a crazy, scary (for the players) piece the Grosse Fuge is. But it was thrilling if unnerving: the Elias spared us nothing. And where tenderness was called for, that was done unsparingly too – as it was the night before, in a searing account of Op 132, whose slow movement depicts Beethoven’s brush with what he thought was a terminal illness – in terms close to complete emotional breakdown.
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