Bach / Beethoven / Mendelssohn
St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-05-27
The Chiaroscuro Quartet emerged in 2005, at the Royal College of Music, London (see also Wikipedia), around the Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova (*1985). Since its inception, the ensemble consisted of the following members:
- Alina Ibragimova, violin (Russia, *1985)
- Pablo Hernán Benedí, violin (Spain)
- Emilie Hörnlund, viola (Sweden, *1982)
- Claire Thirion, cello (France)
I have been following Alina Ibragimova’s activities for a while now: she is a very interesting artist with a profound musicality. So far, I have discussed one CD recording of the Chiaroscuro Quartet (with compositions by Mozart and Beethoven) in three separate blog posts. This was my first live concert experience with the ensemble. An opportunity that I simply could not miss.
This concert was one of a series of string quartet recitals that was initiated in Zurich’s St.Peter Church, in reaction to the temporary closure of Zurich’s main concert venue, the Tonhalle, for renovation (see my page “Concert Venues” for more information).
The audience size was rather moderate on this beautiful Sunday afternoon made me wonder whether the weather is to blame, or whether around here, the Chiaroscuro Quartet still isn’t known well enough. The latter would be a real pity, though! However, distributing blame does not help the organizer, not does it fix the possible impression of a lack of interest in either the music, or in the ensemble, if not even both.
Sure, one could state that it is the fault of those who deemed the event not important enough. What did they miss? A lot, indeed: a true highlight of this ending season of string quartet recitals. And a real revelation, even to those who already were fans, insiders of historically informed performances!
With the exception of the cellist (sitting on a little podium at the right edge of the semi-circle), the musicians played standing. Frequent, short glimpses in the direction of Alina Ibragimova made it obvious that the first violinist was in control of the ensemble. Though, she never played herself into the foreground or otherwise tried to dominate. It’s very likely just her natural musical authority. From the sound, presence and the dynamics / volume, all four voices had absolutely the same weight. Similarly, a unified spirit governed their performance also in intonation (see below) and articulation.
In the last years of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed a series of contrapuntal works (fugues, canons) on a common theme, organized in growing complexity (whereby the extra complexity involves adding additional themes, to form double and triple fugues, etc.). Bach did not complete this collection of pieces. The (presumably) last fugue remained incomplete.
The Chiaroscuro Quartet selected three of the fugues to start their concert, all of which Bach labeled as Contrapunctus:
- simple, four-part fugue about the principal theme in its basic form
- simple, four-part fugue about the principal theme in its inverted form
- a 4 alla Duodecima: four-part double fugue, about a new theme and the principal theme occurring at the 12th
Bach as Entry into the Concert: Vibrato
The three exemplary fugues by Bach were an ideal entry into the concert. In fact, the Chiaroscuro Quartet is by far not the only ensemble taking that approach: Just recently, on 2017-10-01, I attended a concert where the Hagen Quartett did the same, and I may review another concert following that path in a few weeks from now.
To me, Contrapunctus I was the first live encounter with the ensemble and its characteristic soundscape. One part of the encounter was not a total surprise: the notion that the Chiaroscuro Quartet plays with virtually no vibrato should have reached at least the chamber music insiders in the audience. Recordings on CD (with predominantly classical and early romantic repertoire), as well as public videos document this well enough. So, this alone should not have been a shock to the listeners.
Other ensembles and instrumentalists have done this in the recent past, in the context of historically informed performance, more and more musicians follow this path. I don’t want to call this a “trend”. It’s far too central, too important (and supported by musicological research) for that. Meanwhile, playing with little or no vibrato has become fairly wide-spread. Actually, popular to a degree that makes it hard to “sell” performances in traditional style (i.e., with “vibrato sauce” spread everywhere). At least in areas with a strong / prominent exponents of historically informed performance (HIP) style.
The virtual absence of vibrato alone—albeit not new—was a refreshing, really pleasant experience. However, I was even more pleased and surprised again to realize the ensemble’s purity and characteristics of intonation. “Pure” intonation is assumed to be self-evident with professional musicians. However, The Chiaroscuro Quartet takes the term “pure” one level further, to a much more demanding stage. I have rarely (if ever) heard intervals so clean and pure.
The term pure here does not mean well-tempered as on the modern piano (where all seconds, thirds, fifths, etc. are impure to an identical degree). Rather, here, this means clean, Pythagorean intervals, i.e., fifths with a frequency ratio of 3:2, fourths as 4:3, major thirds as 5:4, and so on. This, particularly in combination with vibrato-less playing, opens the view onto an entirely new world of sound and harmonies / harmonics, removing the veiled purity of these intervals. The extreme form of veiling in intervals and harmonies would be that of a piano with equal temperament tuning. But also vibrato has a severe effect on the purity of intervals and harmonies. The Chiaroscuro Quartet used Pythagorean intervals with a consequence that I have rarely ever encountered.
The extremely diligent and conscious intonation was in effect in all works, throughout this concert. However, in the Bach fugues, one could hear / experience them in their purest form. This was most obvious and undeniable in these “standing” final chords, free of any interference beats.
As a side note: in minor tonalities, as well as in passages and pieces with complex modulation, the effect of Pythagorean intervals / intonation is quite limited. One should also keep in mind that using Pythagorean intervals does not imply perfect harmonies everywhere. Quite to the contrary: while the Pythagorean interval sounds pure, clean, other intervals (chords / other voices) may sound “sharper”, more acute. And playing without vibrato accentuates this effect. The Chiaroscuro Quartet’s playing demonstrated this in an exemplary way.
Diligence vs. Spontaneity
As in the intonation, the ensemble was extremely diligent and conscious about phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. With all that carefulness, is there still space for spontaneous joint or individual expression, born out of the moment, in the performance? I think that with the chiaroscuro Quartet, spontaneous action is not the primary focus, nor is the personal expression of the musicians or of the ensemble. Rather, they do their utmost to express the (perceived) intent of the composer(s). And those who open their heart for what’s at the core of the music (and hence the composer’s mind) will definitely not complain about a lack of vivacity, of life in this ensemble’s performances!
Thanks to the absence of vibrato, Contrapunctus I appeared in rare clarity, simplicity, and calm. It formed one single, harmonious phrase: an arch up to a broad, gentle climax, and back into a silent ending. Contrapunctus III uses the same principal theme, but in its inversion (upside down). Here, the viola introduced the theme. Very sparse key notes were subtly enriched with the mere allusion of vibrato, barely audible, just enough to serve the purpose of highlighting.
Contrapunctus IX sounded like a dense, yet still transparent web of voices. Whenever the principal theme appeared, it was gently highlighted amidst all this texture. Again just enough to catch listener’s attention. Gradually, the sound of the quartet gained character, “grip”, expression.
Beethoven: String Quartet No.2 in G major, op.18/2
In 1801, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published his first series of string quartets, which he had composed 1798 – 1800. The second of these quartets, String Quartet No.2 in G major, op.18/2, features the following movements:
- Adagio cantabile – Allegro – Tempo I
- Scherzo: Allegro
- Allegro molto, quasi presto
I have written an extensive comparison of several recordings of this work, so I won’t dwell on the composition any further.
Some principal observations: the momentum, the phrasing, combined with distinct agogics, the light, short articulation, clarity down to the detail.
And here, there was an other proof for the fact that vibrato is OK as “ornament”, i.e., to highlight selected (scarce) key notes in a phrase. But apart from that, in traditional performances, it just veils, often even distorts the intonation, and hereby it would distract from the musical content! Contrary to what the intuition tells to most artists, expression and emotion do not require vibrating! This performance offered everything, up to expressive, powerful passages, in which composed dissonances stood out much stronger, in all clarity and acuteness. Then, there were these touching, subtle, whispered moments (e.g., towards the end, in the coda), full of mystery; overall, a true revelation!
II. Adagio cantabile – Allegro – Tempo I
The dominant impression in the Adagio cantabile was that of total calm. And yet, there was all that diversity, down to the finest ppp. At the same time, the tension never diminished or vanished. Actually, the absence of vibrato even seemed to increase the expectation. I again enjoyed the distinct agogics. And, of course, their ultra-soft, whispered ppp at the transition to the Allegro segment. That short section was full of life, and anything but neutral, sterile polishing, despite the “flat” tones.
III. Scherzo: Allegro
For the following two movements, virtuosity and the absence of coordination issues was simply a given with these artists. The Scherzo was demandingly fast. It demonstrated grip, character, color, up to almost grinding tones. The Trio naturally and seamlessly fit into the context, the virtuosic runs, broken chords and chromatic scales turning into fioriture, delicate ornaments. And of course, the Scherzo returns, initially in a whispered tone, almost.
IV. Allegro molto, quasi presto
One single, little quibble: the reverberating acoustics affected the clarity of the sound, may even have affected the precision in the articulation, which occasionally sounded a tad fuzzy. But apart from that, I admired how the artists seemed to gain forces from the soft, even softest segments. They didn’t need to exhibit power, extra volume, or trump up with exaggerated articulation of dynamics. What I found to be excellent was the sudden change in color at the fermata in bar 139, at the modulation that leads into the development part.
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major, op.12
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) completed his first contribution to this genre, the String Quartet No.1 in E♭ major, op.12, in 1829. The Quartet features the usual four movements:
- Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante
- Canzonetta: Allegretto
- Andante espressivo
- Molto allegro e vivace
I. Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante
Here it was again, this clear view onto the harmonies, the harmonic structure, especially in the slow introduction. Of course again and still, there was very little vibrato (except for the occasional key / peak notes). And this proved that it is possible to create a (early) romantic atmosphere without constant vibration.
Indeed, in the Allegro non tardante part, the absence of vibrato highlighted the beauty of Mendelssohn’s melodies, made them shine, flourish jubilantly, especially in the first violin. There’s so much more color and more character than in traditional performances: just those long, resting notes in the first violin: Alina Ibragimova consequently resisted the temptation to soften those incisive tones with “vibrato sauce”.
And, throughout the performance, I noted (and admired) the persistent seriousness, engagement, the focus and concentration of all four artists: nothing (noises from the audience, maybe not even their own thoughts?) ever seemed to distract the artists’ mind from the music they were playing.
II. Canzonetta: Allegretto
Some might see the theme in this movement as grim, determined, maybe even sarcastic? Here, it appeared earnest, but more playful, with very careful, detailed articulation, and equally diligent dynamics (shaping every form part into a single, harmonious phrase). The entire movement is between p and pp, with one single excursion to sf / sfp (but pizzicato).
In the più mosso part, it was excellent how the clean tones highlighted the transitional dissonances in the long, resting tones, along which the other two voices were hushing by ghastly, all in semiquavers. Those fast passages were certainly virtuosic, but also here, expression was far more important: nothing was show, let alone a mere demonstration of technical prowess. And: the transition back to the original theme was simply superb—a magic moment!
III. Andante espressivo
Of course, it’s predominantly in slow movements such as this one, where the sparing use of vibrato had its greatest effect. Here, it’s mostly the first violin which carried the expression, the emotion, while the other voices supported it with the appropriate harmonies. Interestingly, while the Canzonetta was all in p and pp, this one widens the dynamic spectrum up to ff.
IV. Molto allegro e vivace
A very virtuosic movement, but the Chiaroscuro Quartet—expectedly—put the focus on the strong emotion, the extreme turmoil created by the quaver lines. These passed by like a violent thunderstorm, as accompaniment to the urging, pressing cantilena in the first violin. And again, the latter was much more expressive and emotional than in performances with vibrato. When the dynamics softened in the dolce tranquillo, this by no means weakened the strength of the emotion, or lowered the tension.
A dramatic movement, covering a wide scope of expression, from (almost) amiable, lovely segments up to the violent con fuoco attacks. There are sudden changes in atmosphere, like this amazing moment where Mendelssohn switches from 12/8 to 4/4: despite the annotation L’istesso tempo, the music suddenly is restrained—yet of course fully loaded with tension! After 14 bars, the music returns to 12/8. Here, the viola imitates the first violin. It was fascinating to see how Emilie Hörnlund not only imitated the articulation, dynamics, etc. in all detail, but also exactly matched Alina Ibragimova’s intonation. Is there any stronger demonstration of “ensemble playing from a single spirit & mind”??
The movement ended the official part of the program as a true firework with ff explosions, with extremes in emotion (especially Alina Ibragimova’s wild cadenzas!)—a turmoil like a hurricane. It’s a very enthralling movement—and surprisingly, it ends pp, calm and serene!
Encore — Beethoven: IV. Allegro — Prestissimo from String Quartet No.4 in C minor, op.18/4
The audience may have been smaller than expected. Nevertheless, the applause, the clapping and shouting indicated that the Chiaroscuro Quartet does have its share of fans in the Zurich area. The applause was rewarded by an encore, back to Beethoven. From the same series of six quartets, the ensemble selected the virtuosic last movement (Allegro – Prestissimo) from the String Quartet No.4 in C minor, op.18/4. Information on this composition can again be found in an extensive comparison posting in my blog, so I can save the space for further explanations. The encore was an excellent fit to Mendelssohn’s quartet: not only does it feature a similar, virtuosic, excited spirit, but it is also in the parallel minor tonality (C minor vs. E♭ major).
In the interpretation by these artists, though, this movement wasn’t just grimly focused on virtuosity: it rather started off light and playful, then felt reflective, pensive. Gradually, the music turned agitated, even gruff, grumpy—up to the enthralling Presto ending.
For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.