Experimental, bold approach enlivens Chiara 4’s Beethoven

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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String quartets tend to celebrate major anniversaries by tackling the Everest of their repertoire, that is, the complete cycle of 16 Beethoven String Quartets. That there are actually three ensembles scaling these heights in the Boston area this season should not take away from the significance that a Beethoven cycle carries in the life of an individual group, especially when it is a maiden voyage.

That is the case this season for the Chiara Quartet, a young and rising ensemble that currently holds a Blodgett residency at Harvard University. The group is marking its tenth anniversary and the 25th of the Blodgett residencies with its first Beethoven cycle, spread over two seasons. The second program in this series took place last night at Paine Hall and featured a quartet from each of Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods.

The abundant skill and commitment this group brings to its music-making was clear from the opening quartet, Op. 18, No. 3, dispatched with both vigor and sensitivity. The evening’s highlight was the massive hurtling fugue that closed the second work, Op. 59. No. 3. This is perhaps the most adrenaline-laced six minutes of music in the entire string quartet literature, and the Chiara upped the stakes by choosing a very brisk tempo. But they held it together with highly virtuosic, edge-of-the-seat playing that brought the movement across as the viscerally thrilling ride it is.

Being the group’s very first cycle there were, naturally, several places where this performance stood to deepen and grow. The ear yearned for a wider palette of sonorities, though the Chiara was at points trying.

For the slow introduction to Op. 59, No. 3, and again in the majestic slow movement of Op. 132, the evening’s closing work, the Chiara experimented with scaling back its vibrato or doing away with it altogether. The deglossed sound was striking, but the effect was undermined in part by slight tuning imperfections.

The unusually slow tempo chosen for the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang’’ also did not play in the group’s favor. More generally, as this cycle progresses, the Chiara would do well to sharpen the differences in its interpretive approach to the music of the early, middle, and late periods to highlight the true scale of what is, as these players clearly know, an epic journey.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


At: Paine Hall, Harvard University, last night