Name: Chiaroscuro Quartet
Members: Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí, Emilie Hörnlund, Claire Thirion
Interviewee: Emilie Hörnlund
Current Release: The Chiaroscuro Quartet's new recording of Schubert’s 'Death & the Maiden' on BIS records is out now and available on iTunes or from Amazon.
If you enjoyed this interview with the Chiaroscuro Quartet, visit their excellent, informative website to stay up to date on concert dates and future releases. The Chiaroscuro Quartet's Alina Ibragimova also answered a different version of the 15 Questions interview here.
The overall mood of the group is of course important to have great rehearsals.
Quartet patches are always very intense as we spend so much time together when we meet. It has inevitably made us all very close to each other. This means that the border between having a professional relationship and having a personal one has become somewhat blurred. We try not to take up rehearsal time with personal problems but playing chamber music in itself is listening to each other and sometimes time has to be dedicated to important things outside of music.
We are all based in different countries and we meet wherever is most convenient for everybody. All performing artists have to deal with different venues, acoustics etc. but we don’t even have a regular rehearsal room.
We don’t really have too many requirements about the actual rehearsal space apart from four music stands and chairs. We perform standing up but like to sit down for rehearsals, especially after long travel days!
When we first started rehearsing Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet it was such a thrill to open the music for the first time and know that we would get to know this piece incredibly well. We knew we wanted to record it and so would spend countless hours with this music. So the first day felt like the beginning of a long journey.
We must have spent hours and hours just on the first four bars and we must have practised the last movement half speed probably coming up to 100 times.
It can be difficult to approach pieces of music which have been played millions of times, with so many great recordings made, but once we started getting to know the quartet all we could do was make it our own and tell our version of this magnificent piece. Recording is never the end result but represents one version of ours. It’s is better to think this way rather than trying to embark on the impossible task of creating something monumental that will always be how we would like to hear this particular piece. We try to be spontaneous and free in our playing and by approaching the recording process with the aim of it feeling and sounding like a live performance we sometimes give our producers a hard time when combining different takes. We have been very lucky to work with some amazing producers and sound engineers over the years.
Then comes the difficult task of listening objectively to first and second takes of the recording, but we are getting better at it!
It’s a nice feeling to think that as long as we play and piece of music it is always changing and developing, like we all are.
Use of technology
We are in the process of changing from sheet music to playing from iPads. This was quite difficult in the beginning but when you get used to it, it can be a great improvement. You can avoid difficult page turns and music falling on the floor etc. but it also makes it possible to play from a full score which is amazing.
Ideal state of mind
We strive to always be open minded and ready to embrace each other’s ideas and make them our own. That is the real challenge, to leave egos and preconceptions outside and just allow yourself to see things from a different angle.
The ideal state of mind is arriving to a rehearsal or performance rested, receptive but also excited. Distractions can be many but focusing the mind on the music and the message you want to convey normally does the trick.
We started the Chiaroscuro Quartet at college 13 years ago and although we all did baroque as second study it was completely new to us to play string quartets on these instruments. It took a lot of time to get it to work with the strings and lower pitch but the sensation of playing quartets with gut strings and period bows just made sense to us. Apart from the Quatuor Mosaïques and London Haydn Quartet we hadn’t really heard quartet music played in this way before. Many orchestras were into historical performance but playing string quartets seemed a relatively unexplored territory. Having listened to the two groups mentioned, as well as the great non-gut string quartets we tried not to copy anyone but to find our own sound.
Our biggest challenge at first was to get the instruments to sound well blended. But working on intonation also took some time. Gut strings are fragile but thanks to this they also offer an extraordinary variety of colours. They are less reliable than the “normal” metal strings but that is also what makes them beautiful. Sometimes they break or go out of tune before you finish the first page, but being able to create something very special with sound makes it more than worthwhile.
When we first started we had baroque bows and instruments and as we started to explore more repertoire it soon became clear that baroque bows were perhaps a little too light. Somehow learning Mozart with baroque bows was a great learning experience, though. When we got some classical bows from the college it made it slightly easier for us to play this repertoire. We were very fortunate to be able to borrow instruments from a foundation that kindly supported us for the first few years. As time went by we kept searching for the right combination of instruments and bows and now it feels like the four voices are very well blended.
Alina and Pablo share a very special instrument between them and taking turns playing it seems to work very well.
Sound composition performance
Classical music is quite structured compared to other music and even other forms of art. This doesn’t mean that it is limiting but the challenge lies in delivering something truthful to yourself within this framework. Like a good actor should have numerous ways of delivering the same text, a musician should be able to bring out different nuances playing the same notes on the page.
Surely there are limits to how much information a composer can convey to the musicians through pen and paper, especially when the music was written a few hundred years ago. The pieces were of course copied by hand and over time little differences start to appear and often the originals are forever lost. With this in mind, of course we should be truthful to the score and what is on the page but it’s important to believe in what you play, for it to make sense. When it comes to performing, the most important thing is to be receptive to each other and listen actively.