Chiaroscura Quartet- LIMF New Walk Museum October 2016

One of the reasons why live concert going is so intriguing is that expectations are sometimes not realised and also that not infrequently something quite unexpected and every bit as worthy of attention occurs in the place of those expectations. Such happened when, in a Mozart ,Schubert  programme played on gut strings, the Chiaroscuro Quartet made its debut in Leicester at the opening concert of the 2016/17 Museum Lunchtime Series. As it happened, another Quartet, , the Quattuor Mosaique, famed over many years also for favouring gut strings and historical bows, brought to a close the Leicester 2015/2016 season. Amongst other works they gave a performance of a Haydn quartet characterised by a gentle lyrical warmth but which to my taste occasionally underplayed the drama and vim of the work. So, given also that a few present day solo cellists choose to play on gut strings for the warm sound they give, I assumed this concert would be exhibit many of  the same characteristics.

This could not have been wider of the mark. An idea of what one was about to hear might have been had from the quartet’s name, a word describing a particular kind of painting which favours highly dramatic almost brutal contrasts of light and shade. And that is what in musical terms this concert delivered. Vibrato seemed rarely used, there was little lyrical warmth in the sound  (indeed its sharpness was a real shock to the system at the beginning), any romantic phrasing was in short supply, and all of this in two Viennese masterpieces, the first  of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets and Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. On top of that, towards the end of the first movement of the latter, one was reminded why gut strings fell out of use. There was sharp ping as one of the violist’s strings broke and an interval ensued whilst repairs were made. One had to admire the sangfroid of the quartet and the ease with which Humpty Dumpty was put together again both as regards the string and then the performance.

All the above might suggest that the concert took a less than involving march through two classics of the repertoire. In fact, no such thing occured. Indeed, if nothing else it reminded one of the truth that great music is defined by the myriad of possibilities it offers both performer and listener and these performers offered this listener at least a number of revelatory moments. It was surprising how quickly one’s ear adapted to the sparer quartet sound and how the play between instruments had a clarity not always achieved in the balance of the conventional quartet . What was most compelling though was the range of dynamics. The playing at times achieved great dramatic shifts of sound. The violin sound inevitably was less dominating than usual but achieved intense pianissimos. Thus, in moments such as the dramatic trio in the second movement of the Mozart the addition of the full weight of the viola and cello produced a sound hugely greater than the ear had become accustomed to in the performance as a whole. That was also true in the Schubert in the occasional moments in the first and last movements when the composer’s despair almost takes over the music.

Indeed, the comparative lack of a beefy romantic fullness of violin sound and the rarity of overtly romantic phrasing created some very striking effects throughout. In the witty high spirited last movement of the Mozart, what can come across mainly as a chance for some virtuoso violin playing here produced what can only be described as a sense of light scurrying laughter which fitted perfectly the connection the programme note made with Mozartian comic opera. No doubt it was utterly fanciful but I thought it was almost as if one could hear  the composer’s delighted chuckling.

More seriously, time and again in the Schubert the playing  took one not, as can happen in some performances, into something bordering on Viennese schmaltz  but into an entirely different,  almost other worldly sound world that got to the very core of the stoic resignation that could be said to pervade this work.  In the first movement and in the Minuet the music at times took on an almost haunted quality and in the andante, by taking the movement at a good walking pace, the players’ refusal to indulge the famous melody gave it a blithe simplicity which contrasted painfully with so much of the music around it .

So , by the end I came out of the concert mindful of something Rob Cowan said recently when having a rousing argument with a fellow critic who was being ridiculously prescriptive about a particular performance. He recalled the story of Brahms telling players of a new piece of his that their performance was wonderful, and then adding that a recent but very different rendering of the same piece was wonderful as well! There’s wisdom.


News and Events.


October 11thThe opening meeting of the Leicester Music Society, renamed from the Leicester Recorded Music Society to reflect what has de facto been the nature of its talks for many years. Maggie Cotton (ex CBSO Percussionist) pays a return visit in a talk called The Red Light District. Should be interesting!   Visitors are very welcome and the proceedings  begin at 7.30 in the Congregational Church Hall (off London Rd), Springfield Rd. Entrance.


October 18thThe opening concert at DMH of this year’s Philharmonia Residency. Details at the end of the previous review. DMH 7.30.


October 20th. Lunchtime concert featuring those stalwarts of the Leicester scene, Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen in a programme of music for oboe, Cor anglais and piano. New Walk Museum 1.00