Is it a commonplace to say the early music movement made everything sound new by making it sound old? It’s not quite the same thing, but modernist poets such as Ezra Pound stripped away Victorian excesses and sentimentality by delving into the more distant past for their inspirations. The effect was a strangeness and novelty one gets from the best historically informed performances.
Chiaroscuro Quartet’s 2013 recording of Beethoven’s already otherworldly-sounding Opus 95 String Quartet for the first time has just that effect. It is also shocking. Playing gut strings with historical bows since their formation in 2005, the Quartet – comprising violinists Alina Ibragimova (a c.1780 Bellosio) and Pablo Hernán Benedí (a 1570 Amati), violist Emilie Hörnlund (a c.1700 Willems) and cellist Claire Thirion (a 1720 Tononi) – had previously recorded Schubert (the ‘Rosamunde’ quartet) and Mozart, subsequently more Mozart, Mendelssohn and Haydn’s six ‘Sun’ quartets, all to tremendous acclaim.
The superb period instrument Quatuor Mosaïques (formed 1985) had already cleared the way in this territory, but the Chiaroscuro’s latest recording featuring Schubert’s famous Death and the Maiden quartet raises, if you’ll pardon the pun, the pitch – not to mention the stakes – to an even higher intensity.
Though musically lean and mean the Chiaroscuro members are not period performance specialists. They’re more interested in adding notions of instrumental colour and interpretation to their otherwise thoroughly contemporary toolkit.
The savagery of the Allegro’s opening unison octaves is startling, the following musical argument as fraught and claustrophobic as anything in Chekhov. The variations on the “death-haunted song” – to borrow from Tom Service’s wonderful booklet essay – are likewise bristling with a febrile nervousness. The Scherzo’s mocking laughter seems to come from a grinning skull, while the Presto rushes towards the grave, recalling Schubert’s Erlkönig.
The ensemble is frighteningly tight; this, together with an agility facilitated by the use of gut strings, makes for a thrilling performance that relishes toothsome, aquarelle timbres as much as vigorous rhetorical skirmishes. In all of this, Chiaroscuro Quartet lives up to its name.
The following String Quartet No 9 in G Minor, written nearly ten years before, is a different proposition. But the players take its inventiveness and dramatic potential just as seriously, delivering another of those compelling performances for which they are justifiably renowned.
Composer: Chiaroscuro Quartet
Composition: String Quartets Nos 9 & 14
Performer: Chiaroscuro Quartet
Catalogue Number: BIS BIS2268