Chiaroscuro Quartet’s concert at Jordan Hall Saturday night must have fallen into a crack between sweet spots of audience interests. For regular BEMF attendees, Schubert, Beethoven and Mendelssohn looked far too modern, whereas for aficionados of Classica land Romantic repertoire, BEMF hardly seemed to be a go-to presenter.
For whatever reason, our metro area, densely populated with chamber music lovers, could barely occupy a quarter of the hall. But those who showed experienced a riveting evening of 19th-century drama.
The quartet’s leader Alina Ibragimova is no stranger to Boston audiences, but as far as I know, the group never appeared here before. Having heard them in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, one pandemic ago, I imagined myself somewhat prepared to rediscover very familiar pieces. But the reality surprised me.
Schubert’s Quartettsatz served as a perfect introduction. An urgent and tense opening to the single movement grabbed full attention, with tempo going from urgent to reckless, while the arrival of the ‘dolce’ second theme in the first violin carried a fair warning: the listener’s heartbeat during this evening’s performance would be tightly controlled by that instrument. The phrasing flowed with remarkable ease and freedom, highlighting the tight-knit discipline of the ensemble.
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 Serioso also started with a mad dash. To be fair, the composer’s idea of violently tossing the melody into keys of no return had been spelled out in the score, but the quartet delivered it with utmost dedication. In the beginning of the Allegretto second movement, the scene changed completely, as the cello sheepishly started its descending figure, promising a calming ostinato, but the main theme failed to show up. Instead the viola introduced the movement’s fuga, and its complexity played out with peaceful clarity, a highlight of the ‘chiaro’ promise of the group’s name. Emotional swings continued in Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. The composer had been explicit in his demands that any idea of lighthearted execution must be checked at the door, and in this case he would have found it hard to complain. The relentlessly driven finale exploded into the coda, played with impossible speed, and leaving the listener anxiously wondering where the arc of the program would take us from there.
That well-shaped, crafty arc intersected Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, which the 18-year old composer wrote in the months following Beethoven’s death, exactly 196 years ago. The first movement started with a bow towards the great genius and his opus 132 masterpiece. It then quickly bloomed into a recognizably Mendelssohnian melody, but the spirit of the master’s passionate seriousness determined the mood of the movement. In the following adagio, the great spirit remained with us. This time however the composer was not reliving the past but rather nostalgically reminiscing about it, by loosely paraphrasing a theme from Quartetto Serioso and building a fugue on it. By contrast with the relentless rush of the prototype, which provided no time to relish the full vibrating voices of the instruments, the players here produced a rich and touching sound.
The Intermezzo brought forward the signature style of the young composer — and the Chiaroscuro switched from the lush nostalgic tone to a charmingly understated one, free of excessive sweetness. The young genius, still shaken by the loss, had emerged from the shadow of his idol. The spirit of the latter returned in the finale: it seemed to possess conclusions to every musical idea, but then something miraculous happened. The first violin revived the sweet narrative theme from the first movement — young Felix’s voice, as he picks up where the great teacher had gone silent. The reserved delivery of it sounded straightforward, with only a modest vibrato, and left one shaken with a sense of having personally witnessed a historic moment. Then a chorale washed over it. “Ein Feste Burg” had been hiding in the mist, as often the case in the putatively Lutheran Mendelssohn. It landed as an all-encompassing catharsis: a conclusion of a tour-de-force of musical theater, courtesy of the uncanny palette of the Chiaroscuro. You might have come to enjoy a Romantic safety blanket and instead got thrown into an emotional whirlwind, but at the end, a genuine passionate voice of an idealistic teenager from two centuries ago had emerged. As a self-appointed validator of authenticity credentials, I assert that this group passed.
I would have to defer to specialists with regards to how much of it depended on the hardware: gut strings, spikeless cello, the shape of the bows. Nylon and steel core would probably happily have carried at least as much variety of colors as sensibility could demand. Contrasts played a major role for sure: tense and strained sound in the tempestuous Allegro of opus 13 — and other pieces as well — sounded miles away from the lush cantabile in the Adagio and the starry-eyed purity of the Intermezzo. Opposites generously enriched the narrative. This glorious music could have been played with a consistent juicy vibrato throughout and might have left some audiences content and well nourished. But having once experienced the Chiaroscuro’s drama, I would be loath to settle for usual relentlessly beautiful tones of mainstream groups.
The BEMF streaming channel will offer this performance in a couple of weeks and it will provide a chance to verify if the same magic holds.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.