The Chiaroscuro Quartet are rare among string quartets for having a name that doesn’t come from their favourite composer, or a founder member, but which instead tells us something about the style of their music-making. In painting, the term chiaroscuro refers to the use of strong contrasts of light and shade to create vividly three-dimensional images. The paints and brushes used by Chiaroscuro Quartet are their gut strings and period bows, which they used to great effect in their programme at Sage Hall Two to illuminate three contrapuncti from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and quartets by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.

Chiaroscuro Quartet © Eva Vermandel
Chiaroscuro Quartet
© Eva Vermandel

Second violin Pablo Hernán Benedí led off a majestic performance of Bach’s first Contrapunctus, using the musical architecture to create a vast, airy space. The quartet played it as if they had all the time in the world, and the air of inner stillness within the music was riveting: I could have listened to it all night. The Art of Fugue was probably written for keyboard use, but the Chiaroscuros showed just how effective it can be when played on strings, with each line of the fugue brought into sharp focus. After the stillness and space of Contrapunctus I, first violin Alina Ibragimova began Contrapunctus IV with a glorious singing line. Claire Thirion’s cello provided some gentle momentum, but this was on the whole a warm-hearted performance, providing a logical step from the architectural grandeur of Contrapunctus I to the dancing liveliness of no. IX to close the set. Throughout all the complexities of this last fugue, the Chiaroscuros shone a steady light on the theme, keeping it ever present throughout.

The quartet performed standing up (and Claire Thirion played her cello Baroque-style, without a spike) and I felt that this not only added to the fluidity of their playing, but also enabled Ibragimova in particular to address the audience more directly than a first violin seated sideways can usually do. This was particularly apparent during the thoughtful first movement of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat major, in which Ibragimova and her colleagues drew us into the mind of the composer. It’s always tempting to interpret music in the light of a composer’s biography, and after being roused again by the programme notes to indignation about the injustices endured by Fanny Mendelssohn, I was seeing repressed frustration in the first movement, followed by a tremendous outpouring of pent-up emotion in the two fast movements. From the viola, Emilie Hörnlund led the dextrous solos in the second whilst the chromaticism in the cello added a wild urgency.

The two violins built up the passion in their singing duet lines in the first movement Romanze, then re-emerged serenely out of the harsher chords that come towards the end of movement. The final movement tore away in irrepressible high spirits, and after Ibragimova’s affectionate solo the music throws off all of the constraints that Fanny Mendelssohn was under. The quartet notched up the tension and passion on each repeat of the theme, stretching the dynamic contrasts to the limit, and showing just how daring and exciting Fanny Mendelssohn’s writing is. The composer claimed that she lacked the strength to sustain her ideas to the degree needed to create larger-scale works, but hearing how the Chiaroscuros took this string quartet and let it fly, left me lamenting what might have been if only Fanny had been given the same support as her younger brother.

Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 1 is a good deal tamer than his sister’s, but the Chiaroscuro brought out the interest and beauty of this work. They kept the mysterious opening spacious and reverent, letting it float in the air just as they had done with the first Bach Contrapunctus, before the more straightforward theme takes over. This first movement was tightly focussed, and always with a lovely supple tone on the arching melody. The second movement Canzonetta was particularly enjoyable: a spirited central European folk dance, played with the grace and elegance of Bach. Hörnlund’s viola came through with passion in the dark and sustained third movement. It was in the final movement though that this quartet really took off, with the Chiaroscuros again unleashing a force that grabbed the attention. Every melody sang out powerfully, and they used each pianissimo to refocus their energy through to the mock-ending.

At this point Mendelssohn takes an unexpected journey back to the first movement. I’ve heard this gear-change sounding very abrupt, even clunky, but with their carefully sustained line, Chiaroscuro Quartet made the shift sound entirely logical and natural. Ibragimova’s last solo was powerfully dramatic and, again, we heard the Chiaroscuros letting a theme shine through all the surrounding musical chatter before the quartet reached its quiet, intimate conclusion.