Revelatory Schubert from the Chiaroscuro Quartet

15/02/2017

Bach, Schubert: Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, violin; Pablo Hernán Benedí, violin; Emilie Hörnlund, viola; Claire Thirion, cello). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 2.2.2017. (GPu)

J.S. Bach The Art of Fugue, Contrapunctus 1, 3 & 9
Schubert – String Quartet No.9 in G minor, D.173; String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810 (‘Death and the Maiden’)

When I saw the programme for this concert, a few days before the event, I was a little puzzled as to why the Chiaroscuro Quartet had chosen to begin the evening with three pieces from The Art of Fugue, one of the works where that hoary old description of Bach’s music as ‘sublime musical mathematics’ doesn’t seem altogether silly. The Art of Fugue could surely have little to do with the two Schubert quartets, neither of which is remarkable for its use of counterpoint and both of which have a dramatic and emotional expressivity (especially D.810) quite at odds with the Bach fugues.

In the hearing, however, the contrast turned out to be the meaning of the juxtaposition. The absolute purity of the extracts from The Art of Fugue served for the quartet to, as it were, cleanse their palette, and for the audience to come to the Schubert with clean palates, so that both could be ready for the very different demands, as players and as listeners, presented by these two quartets.

Using gut strings (tuned at a lower pitch than standard modern concert pitch) and period bows, the playing of the Chiaroscuro Quartet is characterised by intensely focused energy and minimal vibrato; the results are rich and various in colour and texture, occasionally intriguingly ‘raw’ in sound; harmonies with which one had perhaps grown over-familiar are heard with a renewed clarity and force – like seeing, newly restored, a painting from which detail had been lost beneath the later accretions of varnish and dirt.

But the energy and commitment of the Chiaroscuro Quartet can also be revelatory in another way. The G minor quartet (D.173), written when Schubert was a mere eighteen (in just over a week!) is usually thought of as a decidedly minor work. Certainly, it shows more obvious traces of Haydn and Mozart than Schubert’s later quartets would. But it would, surely, be unreasonable to demand too much in the way of individuality of voice from an eighteen year old composer. Yet, when one heard it played by the Chiaroscuro Quartet, one began to hear, in the first movement’s contrast between its two themes, one in G minor and the other in B-flat major, a duality of mood which seems much more than a matter of musical convention. The interplay of darkness and light, solemnity and lightness, danger and comfort, speaks of real emotional depth and of an experience of life already subjected to acute emotional analysis, for which the young composer is rapidly finding a musical language. The Andantino which follows, described by Alfred Einstein as “very charming”, is again built around a contrast, the essentially ‘happy’ main theme, being juxtaposed against a more melancholy minor theme. Yet, Schubert achieved, and the Chiaroscuro Quartet articulated, an overall emotional coherence in this unexpectedly subtle movement.

The Minuet of D.173 is a kind of extended allusion to the third movement of Mozart’s G-minor Symphony (K.550). Schubert, indeed, was to become one of the masters of musical allusion, whether the allusions be to his own compositions or to the works of other composers (something fundamental to the power of ‘Death and the Maiden’).

The playing of the Chiaroscuro Quartet throughout D.173 uncovered things I had never heard before in what is, I would suggest, a seriously under-performed quartet. In its final movement, a piece of some complexity, one can hear both echoes of classical (and even baroque) idioms and, in its restless energy, something quintessentially Romantic. Having heard this startling and powerful performance, I now suspect that many of the previous performances I have heard (mainly on record) have rather de-natured D.173, either because of the assumption that its youthful status means that it is merely conventional, or because many quartets, playing on modern instruments, have made sweetness of sound too much their governing aim.

The Chiaroscuro Quartet are never in danger of pursuing ‘mere’ sweetness of sound. After revealing that D.173 was a work of real substance (and growing individuality), there was no need, naturally, for a similar revelation about D.810. No one, surely, has doubts about the quality of Schubert’s achievement here. So, in this case, the revelation effected by the Chiaroscuro Quartet can be described as ‘simply’ that of enabling the listener to hear, as if for the first time, a thoroughly familiar work. So, for example, the intense frustration and anger of the first movement, such a powerful response to the approach of death, took on a new bleakness, being so utterly free of self-pity or sentimentality, that it felt like a musical equivalent of Act V of King Lear. The variations of the second movement (Andante Con Moto) were made even more intense and powerful than usual by the boldness with which the Chiaroscuro Quartet made use of some fierce contrasts of dynamics. The work of cellist Claire Thirion was quite magnificent in this movement, especially in the second of the variations, though it is probably unfair to name-check just one of the musicians in this fine ensemble.

Indeed, the subtlety and precision of ensemble balance (without the merest hint of pedantry or musical ‘primness’) was remarkable throughout this concert, and was a delight in itself, not least in the third movement of ‘Death and the Maiden’, where I have rarely, if ever, heard so perfectly convincing granting of relative weight to the Scherzo’s austere intensity (in which Schubert demands -and on this occasion got – considerable deftness from the musicians when it comes to the interchange of voices) and the partial consolation of the trio’s Ländler, a brief reassertion of the ‘ordinary’ in a work so concerned with the last things (and beyond?). I have, though, to confess to a slight disappointment when it came to the final Presto, which wasn’t as overwhelming as I had expected it to be, the Totentanz not quite so all-encompassing as it can be, nor the important near-quotation from ‘Der Erlkönig’ quite so clearly ‘pointed’ as it might have been. In the prestissimo close, however, the quartet seemed to find renewed energy in creating a properly bleak close.

My minor disappointment with the last movement of D.810 (perhaps the musicians were, understandably enough, approaching the point of emotional exhaustion) did little or nothing to prevent my leaving the hall as a confirmed ‘fan’ of this remarkably gifted and perceptive quartet.

Glyn Pursglove

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