The Chiara Quartet was named Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University for 2008-11, a term now extended through 2014. On Wednesday, December 1 at Paine Hall, it presented the fifth in a series of six concerts surveying all of Beethoven’s string quartets, each including works from his three historically defined, distinct periods. In this case it was the “middle period,” E-flat major, op. 74, the so-called “Harp Quartet” (1809-10), the “early period” G major, op. 18, no. 2 (1798-1800), and the “late period” C-sharp minor, op. 131 (1826), in that order. It was a rainy night, and the smell of wet wool was everywhere, along with the sounds of many coughs, almost all of which amazingly enough were held off until the alleged silences between movements.
The Chiara is a young group who assembled at Juilliard and mentored under the Juilliard String Quartet from 2003-2005. Since then they have been in residence at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. They count this as their tenth anniversary season and have begun a two-year commissioning project they refer to as “Creator/Curator,” whose concerts will begin next season. (As reported here earlier, the “Curator” concept is abroad with the BMOP Club Concerts, too, and maybe others.) In their version, the Chiara will commission new works from four composers, and ask each to “Curate” the concert on which it is first performed—that is, to choose other music that “complements and gives context.”
Thus, they are both youthful and ambitious, qualities that play out in their music. Their instruments are well matched, and in general the players achieve good balance, especially in the slow movements. They play very well together as an ensemble with very little eye contact, especially on the part of the first violinist, Rebecca Fischer. Her “Hauptstimme” (leading voice) is ravishing due in large part to the sweet tone of her instrument, but also to her bowing skill. Conversely their joint romantic “affekt” sometimes gets in the way even of hearing the notes; that is, their efforts to express or even codify romantic emotions in the music apparently cause them to make large swooping phrases, with drop-outs at the ends of them. On the other hand, their transitions between such moods are breath-taking in their sensitivity to each other and to sounds of unbelievable beauty.
The first-movement Allegro of the “Harp” Quartet (so-called because of the pizzicati here) was much too fast, becoming muddled; in general the Allegros and Prestos that characterize at least part of every movement were almost too fast for intelligibility. The first-movement Allegro of the G major quartet (op. 18, no. 2) was appropriately playful, but the remaining movements, all marked Allegro or Presto, just skiddled along.
The first movement of the C-sharp minor quartet (op. 131), marked Adagio ma non troppo e molto expressivo, was right up their alley, as were the other two slow movements in this long work performed without pause. There were some truly glorious moments in between the other four fast movements, where one begins to think one has never heard such beautiful sounds. Soon enough these moments are wiped away by the rush. It is not that these fast movements are badly played technically — in fact, quite the opposite. All four of the players, in addition to Fischer, violinist Julie Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver, all play very well, with almost perfect intonation and refined bowing. It is just that they need to find a more comfortable concept of Allegro and its relatives without losing the energetic impetus and ability to shape phrases that they obviously have.
The Chiara Quartet began this Beethoven cycle a year ago (see the BMint review here, and of the third concert here), and will complete it on March 2nd, with op. 18, no. 6, and op. 130 together with the Grosse Fuge, op. 133.