By Thomas May | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The Chiaroscuro Quartet owes its origins to Mozart. When violinist Alina Ibragimova was a student at the Royal College of Music in London in 2005, she brought together a group of like-minded fellow students for a project prompted by the music world’s celebrations of the then-upcoming 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2006. The RCM’s Early Music department wanted to have a student quartet prepare one of Mozart’s works under the guidance of Sir Roger Norrington.
That project came and went, but Ibragimova and her colleagues got along so well that they decided to continue. There has been only one change in personnel in the intervening years: the Madrid-born Pablo Hernán Benedí joined as second violinist in 2010; he performs on all of the Chiaroscuro’s recordings. Along with Ibragimova, who moved from her native Russia to London in 1996, the other members are violist Emilie Hörnlund from Göteborg, Sweden, and French cellist Claire Thirion.
Mozart was also a regular presence on the ensemble’s first three albums. But their latest release marks the first time that the Chiaroscuro Quartet has devoted an entire recording to the composer. Their interpretation of the three “Prussian” quartets (BIS) thus suggests a return to a point of focus from their early years—and at the same time a venture into new territory, insofar as Mozart’s final contributions to the genre stand apart from his previous string-quartet writing.
During a recent Zoom conversation with the two Chiaroscuro violinists, Hernán Benedí explains that they spent a lot of time working on three of the “Haydn” quartets in those early years, pairing their recordings of each of them with works by Schubert, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, respectively—and gravitating with particular sympathy toward the D minor Quartet, K. 421. “But it’s a big contrast to dive into what are probably the hardest quartets by Mozart,” he says. “He writes in such a specific language and uses the quartet ensemble in a very different way.”
A Smiling, Elusive Lightness
What makes the Prussian quartets so uniquely challenging? “They call for an agility and some very tricky voicing for the ensemble as a whole,” says Hernán Benedí. For Ibragimova, these are “incredibly clever works” in which Mozart indulges a peculiar kind of complexity that can seem enigmatic. She points to the largeness of the last one, K. 590 in F major, the duration of which in their account is just shy of an astounding 38 minutes. Yet this is music of almost unbearable lightness and quirkiness—aspects they convey with admirable spirit that in the finale almost borders on the surreal.
In other words, the difficulty of performing these works isn’t about virtuosity per se but about getting their unusual style right. The “lightness” often perceived in this music is one reason the Prussian quartets have been eclipsed by the six Haydn quartets Mozart had penned several years before. The sense of drama and event in the latter—both violinists refer to the “tragic” sensibility of the K. 421 D minor quartet—might make a deeper first impression, but the contrapuntal verve and play of wit in the Prussians seem to open up a new path for Mozart.
Hernán Benedí describes a certain delicacy to these quartets that makes them less “accessible.” “So many of the themes are presented sotto voce or mezzo voce and have glowing characters that give them a sort of ethereal quality,” he says. “What I find challenging is how to interpret these aspects and still convey this smile in the music, which has so much refinement.”
Another example of the lightness of this “smile” is the high-flying melodic line Mozart assigns to the cello. “In so many moments, it’s almost like there is no ground. You have the sensation that sinking into a theme will destroy it,” he continues. “I remember this sensation very much when we were recording. It’s about how to find this delicate line that is like gliding, without being too solid. And that’s what makes these works such a challenge: it’s harder to be convincing with them. For quartets that are just starting out, that may be why they’ve been overshadowed.”
“Maybe they have been eclipsed, but I think they’re very beautiful quartets,” offers Ibragimova. Both violinists immediately name the first of the three, the Quartet in D major, as their favorite because of the “shimmer” with which it starts (Hernán Benedí) and the contrapuntal “cleverness” of its finale (Ibragimova). “Here and elsewhere in the Prussians, a flair for symmetry and mirroring reminds us of Così fan tutte, whose composition was bookended by the quartets,” says Ibragimova.
What inspired the Chiaroscuros to turn their attention to Mozart again? “We were used to playing sets by Haydn but had not been doing Mozart so much,” Ibragimova explains. “So it was a real pleasure to explore his language in more depth in a complete set of works.”
Considerable mystery clings to the origin of these three works, the last string quartets Mozart wrote. Published soon after his death in 1791, they had taken nearly a year to complete—or rather, they were written in two spurts of activity separated by a lengthy interval. K. 575 was begun in June 1789 and completed the following month, along with part of K. 589, at which point the composer put the quartets aside to focus on such projects as his final collaboration with Da Ponte. He resumed work in May 1790, finishing K. 589 and then tackling K. 590 in June.
Mozart’s own description of the “exhausting labor” they cost him suggests a creative struggle. This period was, in any case, a difficult one that evidently produced much anxiety. He apparently intended them for King Friedrich Wilhelm II, the Prussian ruler he may or may not have met during his trip to Berlin in May 1789. (This, too, remains an unresolved matter of scholarly speculation.)
Mozart implied to a friend that the king, an enthusiastic cellist, had commissioned him to write a set of six quartets. Yet there is no concrete evidence that these pieces were in fact commissioned. Instead, the composer may have planned to dedicate his opus to the king so that he would be remunerated—a kind of retroactive commission. However, payment was not forthcoming, and Mozart decided to sell the three quartets he had completed for an insultingly low fee in order to meet his desperate need for cash. He never dedicated these works to the king, and the epithet “Prussian” was a posthumous invention.
As if to underscore the unusual genesis and stylistic demeanor of these quartets, the Chiaroscuros recorded them in exceptional circumstances in October 2020. Pandemic regulations required producer Andrew Keener and sound engineer Oscar Torres to be sequestered from the musicians in another room. Although the aura of the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings was inspiring, both violinists recall that the scene was dispiritingly empty and gloomy.
Even more inconvenient, the shutdowns meant that the ensemble was not able to try out reactions to the quartets in front of live audiences before the recording. “Usually, we would tour a particular program or project and then record, but this time it wasn’t possible,” says Ibragimova. “So, the recording process was maybe a little more experimental.”
Bringing Out More from the Music
Famed for the sonority of their gut strings, Classical period bows, and sparing vibrato, the Chiaroscuro Quartet uses the techniques and knowledge of historically informed practice not to polish old relics but as facilitators of their adventurous unpredictability.
Ibragimova, who plays a c. 1780 Anselmo Bellosio violin, singles out the key differences that set them apart from other ensembles: “Gut strings change the sound of the quartet completely. So does playing with Classical bows, which means different types of strokes, different attacks, different weights. And we tune at A=432, a pitch which relaxes the instruments. The gut strings make things less predictable but more sensitive. There’s more contrast. The sound is not only beautiful but can be earthy or even ugly if we need it to be. We love to play around with colors and bring out more from the music.”
This approach invites playing with a keener sense of contrast, according to Hernán Benedí, whose instrument is an Andrea Amati from 1570. Colleagues Hörnlund and Thirion play a c. 1700 Willems and a Carlo Tononi built in 1720, respectively. “There is something very raw, very earthy to gut strings… they make it hard to have a neutral sound. Gut strings are much more demanding and much more sensitive. These dramatic touches are, I think, what music is about.”
He even bristles at the phrase “period style” as an excuse at times for “appalling” musicianship. “I think the discussion should be about what the character of the music is and how to make it more alive. Can those tools help? They should just be ingredients to allow you to be as honest as possible.”
“We don’t necessarily follow rules,” adds Ibragimova. “We’re looking for a particular sound, for an inspiration and atmosphere, for a message. And this message can be easier sometimes to portray with gut strings and a light bow and a historically informed approach in a more natural way.”
The peculiar qualities of the Prussian quartets seem to encourage the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s aesthetic of vivid interplay. Their approach overall, as Hernán Benedí describes it, involves “a lot of looking at things in the same way with all our different perspectives and personalities. But it’s more about what sorts of risks we are taking as a group. And this becomes very evident when living with a composer for a long time. You have to understand the humor, the quirkiness, the special turns and irregularities that make a composer stand out. So, it’s the way we all collectively start loving these nuances.”
“The result of our discussion won’t be that we necessarily agree,” Ibragimova says. “Just that we listen together in concert. That’s all.”