A Thought-Provoking Concert by the Chiaroscuro Quartet

01/05/2018

J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert: Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova & Pablo Hernán Benedi [violins], Emilie Hörnlund [viola], Claire Thirion [cello]), Kings Place, London 29.4.2018. (CS)

Chiaroscuro Quartet (c) Sussie Ahlburg

J.S. Bach Art of Fugue (selections)
Beethoven – String Quartet in C minor Op.18 No.4
Schubert – String Quartet in A minor D.804, Rosamunde

The Chiaroscuro Quartet are aptly named.  This performance, titled ‘Early and Late’ in reference to this year’s Kings Place ‘theme’, Time Unwrapped, was assembled from darkness and light.  The music we heard reached for extremes and thereby evoked intense and often conflicting human emotions and experiences.  Dusky shadows diminished almost to the point where it seemed the music might vanish, only for sudden flashes of brightness to wrench us back to reality.  Motifs were pushed to the foreground, their clarity seemingly sharpened by the mystery against which they were etched.  Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon describes looking at Caravaggio’s pictures as ‘like looking at the world by flashes of lightning’, and the simile seemed fitting here too.

It is an approach and aesthetic that I have previously admired (when reviewing the Chiaroscuro’s recordings of Haydn’s Op.20 Sun Quartets, Nos.1-3 and Nos. 4-6, on the BIS label).  Though at times the results may be idiosyncratic, even puzzling, the Chiaroscuro’s unceasing exploration and experimentation can offer startling and refreshing illumination and insight.  On this occasion, not all of the repertoire performed seemed to lend itself so naturally to such forensic probing and being pushed to the boundaries.  There were moments when I found myself suddenly taken aback by the ‘rightness’ of an unanticipated gesture, as if a spotlight had irradiated something previously hidden or unknown.  Elsewhere, I frowned in perplexity!  That said, if I couldn’t anticipate where or when the moments of revelation would come, I can say that they were plentiful and deep.

The Chiaroscuro began with a selection of movements from Bach’s Art of Fugue, taking us literally and figuratively ‘back to the beginning’, one might say.  Pablo Hernán Benedi’s presentation of the theme at the start of Contrapunctus I was veiled in shadow, forcing us to lean in, listen hard.  As the players entered in turn, the conversation unfolded fluently, the vibrato-less, even tone as calm and purposeful as a philosophical debate.  Increasing weight and colour created controlled animation and feeling, until, un-forewarned, we were suddenly plunged back into darkness, the dynamic fragmented by the silence that Bach imposes before the cadential resolution.

With still composure, Alina Ibragimova introduced the inversion of the theme that opens Contrapunctus IV and, as the descending voices joined her, one could sense how carefully the four players shape the musical arguments, and how equally yet differently they each contribute to the sound-world of the whole.  Emilie Hörnlund’s quietly assured viola entry seemed to gently ‘ground’ the violins’ previous interplay and following the cello’s statement of the subject there was an inevitable flowering of conversational exchange between Hörnlund and Claire Thirion, a lightly vigorous back-and-forth beneath the serenely elongated weaving of the violins above.  It was as if one was looking through a microscope at an intricate tapestry, the colour, thickness, texture of each thread, and the relationship of all the threads to each other, enlighteningly revealed.

The Quartet play with gut strings and period bows, and Thirion nestles her cello between her knees, à la Baroque.  Although raised on a platform, in some of the busier contrapuntal passages, as she crouched over and cradled her instrument, she seemed to draw the other standing players towards her, deepening the intimacy of the dialogues, only then for one player to sway free, to pronounce with more vibrancy.  Such ‘give-and-take’ felt entirely natural in Contrapunctus IX, a 4 alla Duodecima, in which the running quavers were fleet and light, as if floating on a cushion of air, unfurling effortlessly.  Ibragimova’s augmentations of the theme sang pristinely, the marching crotchets propelled the exchanges forward, restatements of the subject emerged resolutely from within, until we reached the beautiful consonance of the final cadence, the D major resolution pure and consoling.

The Allegro ma non tanto of Beethoven’s Op.18 No.4 seemed to begin in medias res, the turmoil and turbulence already surging through the cello’s urgent quavers and the swells and retreats of the inner voices.  With the down-bow chords which punctuate the end of the first phrase, bows were swept high through the air and then snapped almost aggressively onto the strings, creating visual as well as aural drama.  The second subject offered a brief lyrical contrast, before Benedi and Hörnlund slipped away into the whispered ensemble pianissimo, made thrilling by extreme dynamic contrasts and energised articulation.  Bending over her fiddle and swaying inwards, Ibragimova generated growing intensity and dynamism as the development progressed.  If the Chiaroscuro seemed to delight in the ‘crunch’ of the chords which initiate the development of the second theme, then they also cherished the delicacy of the stealthily tiptoeing unison which precedes the coda.

Such delicacy also characterised the introduction of the theme of the Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto, by the second violin and viola; the lucidity and grace were perhaps more reminiscent of a Baroque minuet than a Beethovenian scherzo but as the textures deepened so did the colour and character.  In fact, the Chiaroscuro never let the music ‘rest’ in a single mood, finding gallant poise, fugal objectivity and secretive mystery within a prevailingly restraint.  In contrast, the third-beat accents of the Menuetto were an auspicious invitation to explore Beethoven’s destabilising rhythmic games, the dry tone and rocking stresses creating a ‘wheeziness’ which contrasted with the fluid arcs which the lower three strings curved between them, in answer to Ibragimova’s tetchy pianissimo triplets, in the Trio.  The Quartet observed Beethoven’s ‘ma non tanto’ in the final Allegro, which gave them space to inject a slight wryness into the insistent crescendo which punctuates the two phrases of the theme.  The movement was exciting and edgy, right to the close, when they let the tightly controlled pulse ‘off the leash’ in the Prestissimo and strove for ever greater dynamic extremes, before teasing us with one last idiosyncratic detail – making us wait just a fraction longer than Beethoven’s rests indicate for the final roaring runs.

So far, so fascinating and so thrilling.  But, I was less convinced by the Chiaroscuro’s interpretation of Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet which followed the interval.  The veiled reticence of the start of the Allegro ma non troppo did inspire curiosity and mystery, but I missed the underlying tension, even viscerality, which I feel is generated by the second violin’s undulating quavers as they are nudged by the chilly frisson of the lower voices semiquavers at the end of each bar.  The music felt too ‘distant’, and Ibragimova’s theme though cool, serene and beautiful, did not have enough presence to truly ‘sing’.  The developmental passage in which first violin and cello wind sinuously around the double-stopped twitching of the inner voices was so quiet that it almost disappeared.  In contrast, some forceful exchanges seemed almost spiteful in tone, arriving with such unannounced vehemence that at times the intonation seemed, uncharacteristically, to waver.

The Andante was fairly swift which meant Ibragimova did not have space to let the melody ‘breathe’; it felt a little rushed, and reserved, as if Ibragimova was declining to take the ‘soloist’ role that Schubert surely intends with the first statement of the theme.  In fact, if the theme had had more presence, the lower voices could have made more of their colouring and heightening motifs, such as the second violin’s delicious running semi-quavers which accompany the melody’s reprise: it always seems to me that, at this point, the second fiddle is not just ‘decorating’ the theme but seeking a place in the sun too … but, here Benedi remained in the shadows, barely noticeable.

I found it hard to put my finger on what it was that seemed ‘wrong’; the best I can do is suggest that whereas Beethoven’s dramas are essentially symphonic, Schubert’s music pulses with song, and I wanted a little more warmth, more frequently deployed expressive vibrato, a deeper lyricism – more ‘heart’.  I guess that this means that the Chiaroscuro and I ‘hear’ the music differently – and such differences are surely what music – performing and listening – is all about!

The Menuetto grabbed my attention, though; perhaps because in this movement it is rhythm which leads the arguments.  Thirion’s low murmur was warm-toned and judiciously shaped, with a firm lean on the third note of the motif that created a propelling urgency.  All was taut and tense, relaxing only a little with the modulation to the major mode, but the Trio broke free, the twists and turns conveying the physical joy of the dance.  Again, I felt that the determined chasing of extremes disrupted the essential folk-like simplicity of the Allegro moderato.  But, clearly, I was in a minority!  The capacity audience in Hall One showed their appreciation vigorously at the close of what had been an at times enlightening and always thought-provoking recital.

Claire Seymour

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