The Chiaroscuro Quartet at the Sage Gateshead Newcastle, Review

J.S. Bach – The Art of Fugue
Fanny Mendelssohn – String Quartet in E-flat
Felix Mendelssohn – String Quartet in E-flat, No. 1

The Chiaroscuro Quartet
Sage Gateshead, Newcastle
01/05/2018

J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue (1751) was not strictly written for string quartet, and the composer never specified its instrumentation. So perhaps we should not be surprised when quartets treat it as something rather foreign. This seemed true for the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s performance, who handled Bach’s revered work as delicately as a museum piece.

The Chiaroscuro Quartet| © Agnese Blaubarde
The Chiaroscuro Quartet| © Agnese Blaubarde

This should not necessarily be taken as a negative (especially since composed some 250 years ago The Art of Fugue is something of a museum piece), but it did mean that their performance could err on the side of caution. Playing with limited vibrato and dynamic variation, the Chiaroscuros created an evenness in mood throughout. This sometimes lapsed into overly cautious and even mechanical playing, yet in focusing on the refinement of Bach’s counterpoint, the audience could take pleasure in both the individual players’ lines and there combination into a harmonious whole.

With Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat (1834), the Chiaroscuros were in more familiar territory. The outpouring of emotion during the work’s expressive centre – the third movement Romanze – made for a vast contrast with Bach. Their playing nevertheless remained subtle, with their carefully controlled dynamic changes being particularly rewarding. They captured the final movement’s uneasy energy, especially during the impressively fast passages in the lower strings which accompanied menacing, unison violins.

The audience were also treated to diverse moods in String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat (1830) by Fanny’s brother, Felix Mendelssohn. The moment when first violinist Alina Ibragimova slipped into the first movement’s second theme was beautiful. She relished leading the ensemble with Felix’s singing melodies, but could still seamlessly recede back into joining the rest of the quartet. The Chiaroscuros took full dramatic advantage of the final movement’s shocking opening chords, while the sweetness with which they played the movement’s comparatively subdued closure – far from being anticlimactic – was utterly convincing.