Review: 29 September 2016 Chiaroscuro Quartet

Mozart, Haydn, Schubert

Chiaroscuro QuartetThe new season opened with Chiaroscuro playing three familiar string quartets on authentic instruments. ‘Period’ stringed instruments are set up very differently to ‘modern’ ones, with gut strings and bows constructed to give shape to each tone or phrase, even a ‘chiaroscuro’, an alternating ‘clarity’ and ‘darkness’ within the phrase. Played with minimal vibrato, very pure tuning and a fine sensitivity to phrasing and texture, these instruments can bring familiar music alive in relevatory ways, as Chiascuro amply demonstrated.

The first half comprised Mozart’s G major Quartet, K. 387 and Haydn’s D minor Quartet, Op.76 No. 2, composed some fifteen years later. Both works contrast classical poise with a more Romantic sensitivity, qualities Chiaroscuro brought into sharp relief. The many rapid violin passages in the Mozart had a gossamer-like delicacy, but the ensemble could snarl or chunter as required, or throw classical poise to the wind as in the finale. Similarly, the slow movement of the Haydn was a gentle courtly dance, standing in stark contrast to the obsessive canons in the ‘Menuetto’ or the very fast finale.

After the interval came Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet. Here was a good deal more ‘oscuro’ than ‘chiaro’. The first movement was taken very fast, with darkly-toned pianissimos and violent, astringent fortes. It was pity that the supercharged tempo was maintained for the delicate second subject ¬– a concession, perhaps, to the twentieth-century fetish of maintaining fixed tempo throughout each movement? – but just what these period instruments can achieve in this repertoire was magically demonstrated at the end of the first movement when the dark minor chords became mysterious, very deep. There were occasional slips in tuning and ensemble, and the cellist’s rather straight playing failed to match the responsiveness of her fellow musicians but for all that, this was a fascinating and rewarding concert.

Peter Johnson