10 Questions for Sara Bittloch from the Elias Quartet

Posted on 2nd July 2014 by admin

Someone described the first violin to me as the ‘diva of the string quartet’. Is that fair or accurate?

Maybe I’m not the person to answer this question! I hope that it’s not true in the negative sense of the term. But just as every other player in the quartet has to take on many different roles at different times depending on the context, I feel there are times where I need to soar above the texture in the same way a singer might do. It’s lucky for me as since very young I wanted to be an opera singer! Maybe these instances are the closest I’ll ever get to it.

Would you tell us about your instrument? 

It’s a Januarius Gagliano which is being very generously lent to me by Ruth Waterman. It has a very strong personality, I love that it makes me discover new sounds and colours all the time. I feel extremely lucky to have the chance to play on it.

Is it your only instrument or do you have different instruments for different purposes?

I own a modern violin by the French maker Frederic Chaudiere. It’s beautiful but when I had the opportunity to play the Gagliano, there was no comparison! Right now it’s being played by a young violinist.

All of the members of the Elias Quartet have professional lives outside of the quartet – would you tell us a bit about other things you’re doing these days? 

To be honest the last few years have been so busy, particularly with the Beethoven project, that we’ve had much less time for other things. But as I write, Marie is just off to do some teaching at a festival in Canada, and she also plays in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe whenever she can. Martin likes to go back to Sweden for projects with the orchestras in Stockholm. Don is very active as a Scottish fiddle player and composer, which is also great for us as he often writes or arranges tunes for the quartet. I love going to chamber music festivals both because it’s always inspiring to play with other musicians and also because it’s often the only opportunity I have to see friends from different parts of the world.

At East Neuk Festival, members of the Elias will play in a septet, sextet, quintet, quartet… – is this a typical weekend for you and the Quartet?

Not at all! It’s the kind of thing that happens once in a while at festivals, so we’re really looking forward to it. And we’re also really excited to collaborate with the Belcea quartet for the first time, as we’ve known them a long time but never had the chance to play together. Laurene Durantel will also be part of the Strauss septet on the double bass (unfortunately I’m not involved in it) and it’ll be great to see her again, we used to be resident in Sheffield together some years ago…

You are in the middle of the Elias Quartet’s very intense Beethoven Project playing all of his quartets; but at East Neuk, the only Beethoven is a Quintet. How do you find spending so much time with one composer – even such a great one – and how easy is it to get your head out his world and into other things?

Until now spending so much time with Beethoven has only been a treat! I can’t ever imagine having had enough of it. His music is so consistently inspiring, and also perhaps the most varied of any composer when you think of the astonishing difference between his early, middle and late periods. We’ve also organised it so we have a certain amount of time, say a month or two, with only Beethoven, then another period with other repertoire, then Beethoven again, etc. So there’s been a kind of back and forth which has meant everything keeps feeling fresh!

Playing so much Beethoven so intensively: can you describe the effect that is having on the quartet? 

Beethoven challenges you in a huge number of ways- musically, technically, emotionally, physically, stylistically…, and he demands you to be “in” the music to the outmost, in every single note and rest of any piece. Some emotions in Beethoven can seem somehow too powerful to be conveyed with our limited human means. This has forced us stretch our limits, to find new ways of conveying these emotions. There is also something totally uncompromising in Beethoven, which means we’ve had to become clearer about what we feel and what we want to say. And I think a byproduct is that we have more courage to each be ourself, within the unity of the quartet.

The Beethoven Quintet you will play was a piece you especially drew to my attention: can you tell us a bit about why it is a piece you wanted to perform this time? 

First I want to say what an absolutely wonderful piece it is!! Which is why we’ve chosen to include it in our Beethoven cycles. It’s as great as any of the quartets and although it was written not long after the early quartets, it’s completely different and unique, very operatic which is unusual for Beethoven, and therefore a valuable addition to the complete quartets cycle. Unfortunately it isn’t played very often, because people tend to choose the more famous Mozart or Brahms quintets. So, knowing that Krzysztof would be there too, it seemed the perfect opportunity for us to bring it to East Neuk!

What is the toughest thing about playing in a quartet?

The amount of work and traveling makes it hard to have a private life.

What is the most rewarding thing about playing in a quartet? 

It’s hard to choose! For me two things stand out. Spending so much of our lives with some of the greatest music ever written is so enriching emotionally. Also, over the years you come to know each other’s playing so well, and through that, a freedom develops which I think is probably unique to the string quartet, directly related to the sheer amount of time one has to put into it. I guess it’s that possibility of freedom yet communion between four equal voices that I find so moving.