The challenge of playing period music on early instruments, wrote Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Erich Leinsdorf, is that “original ears can be notoriously difficult to restore.”
Musicians who play on original instruments are able to create a sound much more in tune, if you will, with the way the composers intended.
One of the leading exponents of this approach to music, the Austrian quartet Quatuor Mosaïques, will bring their 18th century instruments and their 21st century know-how to Boston’s Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music this Saturday night, October 14.
The performance, featuring the work of Mozart and Haydn, will take place under the auspices of the Celebrity Series of Boston.
How good are they? Le Monde wrote that they played with “finesse, dramatic intent, grace, intelligence, and beautiful sonority.”
And you know how hard the French are to please.
The sole non-Austrian (he’s French) member of the quartet, cellist Christophe Coin, took some time to explain why the group has favored 18th century instruments – and hard-to-play gut strings – for the 30 years of its existence.
Michael: Why gut-string instruments?
Christophe: Gut strings provide a richer overtones spectrum, a warmness in tone, a transparency in texture, and clarity of articulation. They were generally used at least until the time of World War I. Even when we play Bartok’s String Quartet N°1 or Debussy, we think they bring a special quality to the sound.
Michael: How do you create a sense of unity and ensemble in a string quartet when you all lead busy musical lives away from the group?
Christophe: We are not a quartet that practices together daily. But since the original 4 members have been playing together for the past 30 years, we have adopted together rules concerning harmonic intonation, phrasing, and so on.
Michael: What’s the source of those rules?
Christophe: We started with Haydn, whom most people consider the “inventor” of the string quartet. As we say in French, he is the “every day bread” for us. Playing his work offers great help in building a solid base for the group.
Michael: On your website, you say that you are not trying to create authenticity that would belong in a museum. Instead, you are trying to create something that is living and breathing for the audience. How do you accomplish that?
Christophe: It is utopic to pretend that we could have enough information about how performances took place two centuries ago to be able to play like they did. To read about methods of playing and to study treatises about music is not enough. Actually, those things can be useless, because we have different ears, test, culture, education, and so on. But we try to follow the narrow path that early instruments show us, to stick as much as possible to the composers’ indications and, of course, to be open to our own intuition.
Michael: Tell me about the cello you perform with—what do you know about its history? When and where did you buy it? How did you choose it, and how did you know it was the right instrument for you?
Christophe: You can be attracted by many different instruments in your career, but you can notice if they are your allies only in the moment of performing.
The cello I play is an Alessandro Gagliano (Napoli around 1720), who was the founder of a long family dynasty. It has a very clear sound, but also rich basses, which makes it useful for quartet as well as solo performing. I could not afford to buy it — very few musicians own major Italian instruments. It belongs to a French foundation, and I have it for a limited time, as long as possible, I hope.
For further information, visit http://celebrityseries.org/mosaiques.