The Elias String Quartet is in the process of presenting half of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets for the Secrest Artists Series this week. They will return in the fall to complete the cycle. Thursday night’s concert featured Quartets No. 2 in G (Op. 18, No. 2, written between 1798-1800), No. 11 in F minor (Op. 95, 1810), and No. 13 in B-flat (Op. 130, 1826). Many scholars divide Beethoven’s output into three style periods: “Imitation,” (he would surely bristle at such a designation), “Heroic,” and “Reflection.” This program featured one quartet from each period.

The ensemble – Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Simone van der Giessen (viola) and Marie Bitlloch (cello) – formed in 1998 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. Benjamin Nabarro is serving as a worthy replacement for first violinist Bitlloch during her maternity leave. According to a press release, “Their name comes from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, of which Elias is its German form, and have quickly established themselves as one of the most intense and vibrant quartets of their generation.” When they are not touring they are the ensemble in residence at the RNCM and regularly go back there to teach and perform.

The evening began with the second quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), a four-movement work, modeled after the works by Haydn and Mozart in a fast-slow-dance-fast fashion. According to scholar Joseph Kerman, it “is Beethoven’s wittiest composition in the genre.” And the opening theme is a bit jocular. The Elias quartet perfectly caught the spirit, with generous (flamboyant?) gestures, especially from the first violin. For such an early work, the music is sort of divided equally among the players, with the 1st violin and cello getting the lion’s share of the action. And both Nabarro and Bitlloch made the most of it.

The second movement featured a lot of lovely 1st violin filigree. Unexpectedly, a middle fast section provides contrast, while attesting to the ensemble’s energetic reading. The Scherzo continues the good spirits of the fast section, with some cute licks tossed back and forth. The finale begins with the cello and is full of the humor that graced the first movement. Some unexpected harmonic excursions add to the delight.

The F minor quartet would not fit easily into the “Heroic” character of the middle period; indeed, the composer labeled in “Serioso.” As cellist Bitlloch explained from the stage, this quartet is unique in its compactness and its own individual form; it “packs a punch.” The intense first movement flew.

The second movement, a gorgeous and complex Allegretto, was played with utmost delicacy, often with the musicians playing as softly as can be imagined. A marvelous fugal passage takes the listener into some heavenly realms. The third movement Allegro takes off at a furious pace, which is halted by frequent pauses. A legato middle section interrupts the intensity.

The Finale begins with a slow introduction alleviating the furious nature of the preceding movement. The ensuing Allegro makes this the most accessible movement of the four. To be sure there are stormy passages, played with great drama by the Elias quartet, but all completely understandable. A strange light-weight scurrying Coda in major concludes the work.

The final piece on the program is a six-movement work and the longest of the evening. The first movement attempts to fuse a slow passage with a fast one which makes the most of contrast. The short “simple” Presto second movement couldn’t contrast more than the serious and complex first movement—it really is an enjoyable and quirky romp. The Andante, after a  couple of legato measures, ambles amiably along and is marked by staccato and pizzicato passages. Next up is a Tedesca, a waltz-like German dance; it is gracious with studied elegance.

What follows is the Cavatina, defined as a short, simple song. Introspective and poignant, the movement is unique among all of Beethoven’s works. The intense emotion is palpable; there is even a passage where the 1st violin stumbles in its articulation of grief, over the accompaniment of the other three strings. Originally, the finale was to be a giant fugue, which went on to be published separately as an independent composition, Op. 133. What Beethoven wrote as a “substitute” is a much more accessible, fun Allegro.

These detailed descriptions of the quartets shed light on the emotional territory the Elias quartet had to transverse. And they traveled those disparate roads with wonderful flexibility and commitment. Especially impressive was the way in which each individual watched the others, seemingly to feel their neighbor and anticipate what was next. The communication was amazing. Technique was put in the service of conveying the varied emotion. I couldn’t imagine better advocates for this magnificent music.

The third concert in this series will be presented on Saturday evening, February 29. See the sidebar for details.