Whether Schumann said it elsewhere with greater clarity or more punch grew unimportant Wednesday night when the Elias String Quartet played his String Quartet in F Major, Op. 41, No. 2. The piece can be trying. But the point is, the playing was so exquisitely worked out and rendered with such love that it probably will never attract a better guide to its oddly special qualities.
If talking about love in the realm of string quartets seems arbitrary, consider the full achievement of the Elias' Philadelphia Chamber Music Society appearance at the Perelman Theater. In Schumann, Haydn, and Beethoven, devotion to a collective sound and soul of a piece was scrupulously observed, but as an act of striking modesty. When a figure in the Schumann got passed from one player to the next, pitch and timbre differences were nonexistent. Cellist Marie Bitlloch's pizzicato and violinist Sara Bitlloch's melody bent in time with what can only be described as a clairvoyant understanding. This is real quartet playing.
Collective strengths, however, by no means existed to mask individual weaknesses. The London-based Elias boasts a foursome of absolute equals: expressively adventurous violinists Sara Bitlloch (who happens to be a Curtis graduate) and Donald Grant, and the velvety ideal shared by violist Martin Saving and cellist Marie Bitlloch.
A variety of musical temperaments emerged in startling detail. They found humor in Haydn's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No. 2 by isolating its opening gestures. Sara Bitlloch liberated the first violin melodies of the second movement by giving them an improvised feel. The group highlighted the best in the Schumann, a first movement full of coy sighs and, rare to this composer, carefree thoughts.
Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, "Razumovsky," came with a minor struggle or two - the final fugato is almost there - but, really, these moments mattered not at all. Musical values showed something much bigger. The second movement's forte-piano accents came like small jolts, slightly suspending time. Grant and Saving rendered their third-movement runs as a series of astonishingly quick, yet finely wrought, strands. Voices ducked in and out and technique calmed challenge, but the Elias remained, in every way, a single stunning organism.