In what would turn out to be a concert of two very distinct halves, the Elias Quartet impressed in the cosy confines of Wigmore Hall. After a full ‘daily grind’, arriving at this cocoon of a hall – where outside noise is absent, save for the occasional underground rumble – felt like a real treat. Here was a chance to sink into some cosy chamber music to wash over the listener – or maybe not. The first half consisted of a quartet in unusual form by Haydn, and Sibelius’ 1909 piece Voces Intimae: both pieces which demanded concentrated listening.

Launching into Haydn’s ebullient opening, the Elias Quartet immediately asserted confidence – their timing was brilliant and their articulation crisp and precise, as they outlined Haydn’s jaunty five-bar phrases. As the piece progressed, the quartet’s appetite for the dramatic began to emerge, as they squeezed every last drop from each cadential point. When this was combined with the bad habit of using huge sniffs and even bigger body movements to communicate entries, I started to feel it was a little much – erring toward melodrama. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the more understated fourth movement shone for me; its delicate swells and gentle pulse were handled with aplomb and set up the necessary contrast to the surprising Presto that appears between the two Adagios of the final section. This piece feels like a lesson in quartet form from the ‘father of the string quartet’. A lesson heeded by Sibelius...

I must confess to knowing very little of Sibelius’ chamber music – not really my fault, considering that what relatively little there is, is not performed very often. So this was a rare chance to hear the great symphonist in an introspective, cosy setting. Voces Intimae (‘Intimate Voices’) had all the trademark ‘Sibeliusness’ that I was hoping for: in particular, Sibelius’ organic development of thematic material – where one simple theme spins out to cast a whole section of music. Sibelius is something of a rule-breaker and there were many phrases written to begin in unison – something bound to earn a big telling-off from any diligent composition tutor – but the delicious effect here was to allow these phrases suddenly to bloom into harmony like a budding flower. Despite the loveliness of the musical material, the form is complex and as a whole it is a demanding listen. The quartet played this music brilliantly, with impeccable timing as before, but now emphasising dynamic contrast as well; helped by the hall’s tremendous acoustic, the quietest moments were barely audible, which focused the attention of an audience that was rewarded when repeats swelled and opened up to effect serious pathos.

Following the interval, and joined by Jonathan Biss at the piano, violist Martin Saving began Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81. The opening theme is dripping in romanticism and sets the tone for a piece that really is serious about emotions. The piano sound in Wigmore Hall is simply amazing and here, blended with the quartet, it was a treat for the ears. The piano – lid fully open – drowned out the more delicate pizzicato accompaniment of viola and cello, but this was a mere trifle, as the sound produced by these players was stunning. This music is certainly beautiful and enjoyable, but it does lack bite, particularly compared to the meaty quartets of the first half; programming it here felt like a safe option. Still, it is an indulgent pleasure to hear music jam-packed with hummable tunes, and it felt like an antidote to the more serious and intellectualised stimulation of Haydn and Sibelius.

The Elias Quartet are hot property at the moment, fresh off a European tour alongside Jonathan Biss and looking forward to a long-standing arrangement to perform a Beethoven quartet cycle. Judged on this performance and the unequivocally positive audience response, their success is well deserved.

Elias String Quartet; Jonathan Biss piano, at Wigmore HallArthur Keegan-Bole reviews the Elias Quartet at Wigmore Hall with quartets by Sibelius and Haydn and Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A.3