Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Light and shade

10:24, 15th June 2017

The Chiaroscuro Quartet’s performances of Classical and early Romantic repertoire on a period setup have attracted widespread admiration. As they release their second disc of Haydn’s ‘Sun’ quartets, they speak to Katy Wright

The circumstances in which the Chiaroscuro Quartet was formed might not be romantic – the players were put together by the Royal College of Music because there was extra funding in the chamber music historical performance department – but 12 years (and one player change) down the line, the chemistry between the players is stronger than ever. Although the quartet has recorded Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven, it has only been in the past few years that the ensemble has felt sufficiently confident to take on Haydn’s ‘Sun’ quartets, which Alina Ibragimova describes as ‘the basis of the quartet repertoire’

‘As a bass player, the way he writes for the cello is very different from what’s come before,’ Claire Thirion says. ‘It’s the beginning of the melody for the cello and it’s very exciting. There are lots of contrasts, and the four parts are much more equal than previously. I have two roles: I’m playing the bass, then I suddenly have to leap up and become the melody, so it’s quite challenging in a way.’

Emilie Hörnlund agrees. ‘The viola has some meaty things and some fiddly stuff too! I feel quite lucky to have been able to record them. They’re amazing pieces, and I think we can say we feel confident with our language of Haydn now.’ Thirion describes the quartet’s approach to the composer’s music as ‘playful, with contrasts and surprises’, and all four players bland. ‘It’s always about communication in the moment,’ the cellist adds. Fittingly, some of the takes from their new CD were left up to the producer – but the players emphasise that each performance can be very different, and the recording is just one version.

The composer’s Opus 76 quartets are next in line, but there is a general consensus that the quartet will start to push the boundaries of its repertoire into the romantic period, with a performance of Schumann’s quintet imminent and Brahms on the cards for the more distant future. It is quite possible, though, that the quartet will take on significantly later repertoire at some point: Pablo Hernán Benedí comments that he has been imagining Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht with a gut sound.

The quartet has been playing on gut strings and period bows from early on, and the combination has come to play a large part in their approach to repertoire. ‘It’s not about playing pretty,’ Thirion says of the setup. ‘There are some very tough moments, and the gut lets you push a lot more; you get this earthy sound that we like very much. Usually when you play on middle strings, you have to compensate a lot with vibrato to make the sound nourished, but when you use gut strings you need very little vibrato because the gut keeps the core of the sound when it’s piano.’

‘On metal strings you can get away with quite a lot by simply pushing and pulling, but if you do this with a gut string it doesn’t sound good,’ Hernán Benedí explains. ‘It’s a matter of becoming more sensitive to the physicality. Each finger feels like you’re more acute and aware.’

Although the nature of gut strings means that the player’s relationship to the instrument is constantly changing, the violinist says that this actually strengthens the connection between the two. ‘Even on a bad day, you don’t immediately panic. You accept that it’s a bit more of a challenge and have to find different fingerings and hand shapes. [It’s always suggested that playing] should always feel the same; [that] it’s really bad if you’re on another bow or something. Everything becomes about defending yourself, but gut strings mean you can relax a bit.’

Although the ensemble make use of period techniques, they reject the idea that they are a period ensemble. ‘We’re trying to be pure, but not purists!’ he adds. ‘Maybe it’s because we strive for an aesthetic or sound. It’s nothing to do with achieving any truth. Sometimes in programme notes we read “this is the way they would have heard it”, and it’s poison. As long as it’s honest, it’s valid.’

The Chiaroscuro Quartet’s second volume of Haydn’s ‘Sun’ Quartets is released on 30 June by BIS.

The ensemble will present a Rhinegold LIVE recital featuring music from the new recording at London’s Conway Hall on Tuesday 4 July. Register for free tickets here

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