Brahms By Heart

May 5, 2014

Eight years in the making, a recording of chamber works by Brahms has at its core an unexpected artistic stimulus: memory.

Chiara String Quartet
The Chiara String Quartet (photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Boston has for some years now been a sort of Garden of Eden for string quartets, with established ensembles and up-and-coming groups alike offering so many concerts that one could choose to hear only quartet performances for an entire season and still not manage to hear all of them. One of the ensembles that has enriched that environment over the last several years is the Chiara Quartet, which just wrapped up a residency at Harvard University.

While every quartet has its own unique artistic profile, owing to the mysterious chemistry of four individual personalities channeling the artistic vision of one composer, there is one aspect in particular that sets Chiara apart: memory. While it's a given that a concert pianist or other soloist will perform without the benefit of reading music, it's rare for a string quartet to approach performances that way.

It makes sense. Those soloists perform their part and their part alone. So the task of memorization, while not trivial, is manageable for an individual. But when a quartet reads music, they typically read from a score. This enables each player to know by sight as well as sound what the other three are playing.

That attention to the written notes is baked into the culture and knowledge-base of quartets. But it also comes with a cost, at least according to some players. Using sheet music can, some say, impose a barrier to understanding. The reason those soloists work without sheet music may be to show off a bit, but it's much more about letting go of external input and relying solely on a deep relationship with the music, forged through hours of practice and study. So if soloists can explore that relationshiop, why, Chiara asks, can't a quartet?

The initial impulse didn't arise from abstract thinking. It came through a specific experience. Several years ago, Chiara recorded the string quartets by Brahms. When they listened to their own work, though, they recognized that something was missing. They abandoned the recording, forced to re-think their approach.

It was the group's second violinist, Hyeyung Julie Yoon, who suggested that they immerse themselves deeply in the music, learning it so well that, when taking the stage, they could do so with no music stand to read from. Their performance would rely solely on that relationship with the music and the practice that went into forming it.

The approach recalls that of another group from decades past. The Kolisch Quartet performed from memory as a general practice, and those performances have gone down as legend.

For Chiara, this outwardly appearing highwire act has led to music-making that is transformed. They report in the notes that accompany the recording that, "After memorizing a work, the Quartet is rewarded with deeply gratifying performances in which each member feels fully present in the moment, truly performing with heart, by heart."

To purchase Brahms by Heart, visit ArkivMusic.

Download a performand of Haydn's String Quartet No. 20 from the Classical Performance Podcast.


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