Masterclass: violist Emilie Hörnlund on Beethoven String Quartet op.59 no.1

Chiaroscuro

Swedish violist Emilie Hörnlund, of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, discusses how to achieve optimal articulation, balance and flow in the first movement of the first ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartet

Chiaroscuro

There’s something so joyous and youthful about this movement that it just makes me smile. It’s so sunny, positive and warm, so sparkling and alive – full of almost puppy-like anticipation. I could listen to it on repeat, and I force my kids to listen to it too! Right now it’s my favourite Beethoven quartet. Ask me tomorrow, of course, and I’ll tell you something different.

Beethoven wrote 𝅘𝅥 = 88 in his manuscript for this movement, which is quite fast. In the Chiaroscuro Quartet, violinists Alina Ibragimova and Pablo Hernán Benedí, cellist Claire Thirion and I play just under that, so that the melody sounds bubbly and light, but the triplets don’t sound manic. The main thing is to be aware, trust our instincts and listen.

To us, it’s the job of the second violin and viola to set the scene and get everything going. We breathe with Claire as she begins her melody, then play without a firm start, as though we are opening the curtains on music that has already begun. Modern players sometimes play these quavers (e) bouncily, but we use gut strings and Classical bows, so we feel that the note lengths can be healthy, as long as they don’t become dull or lose their usefulness. Of course, it is possible to do short articulation with a Classical bow, but a more brushed effect makes more sense to us musically. Whatever you decide, make sure that you are guided by what you want to hear, not by the limitations of your technique. That is also important in places such as bar 37, where the notes should sound equal wherever they fall in the bow.

Swapping parts

In the Chiaroscuro Quartet, when we disagree about anything in the music, we swap parts to try to understand each other’s perspectives. We swapped instruments once, but that was more funny than useful, I think! Claire is very good at playing while singing, so she tries to get us to sing our parts together too. We all speak different languages, so that can be interesting, because different sounds come naturally to each of us.

This approach has been useful in bar 34, where the cello and viola have to demand space without being too heavy or ‘notey’ when responding to the violins. It’s helped us to work out how to keep the music flowing. It has also been useful from bar 79, for the triplet line that crescendos across the quartet, to find out how to pass the viola triplets to the second violin with the same sound and forward movement. It’s quite jumpy and difficult to play nicely, so I stay in first position and keep the bows short. In bars 89–90 we then play the carrot accents equally, with space between them but enough strength and direction to carry us to the warm dolce in bar 91. In bar 95, the music can feel heavier and a bit stuck when three of us are playing together, so swapping parts has helped us to find out how to allow enough room to move.

It can be particularly hard for the viola to get from the melodic, mellow material of bar 117 into the sustained forte of bar 118, the pianistic triplets of bar 119, and through bar 120, where there is no time to sit on the down-beat. Swapping parts has helped us to find fluidity in the triplets, quavers and the flowing melodic line over the top.

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