It was another brilliantly bright and warm perfect fall day in Durham as nearly everyone walking towards Baldwin Auditorium had their sunglasses on. Nothing especially unusual about that, except for the fact that our destination was a highly unusual (perhaps unprecedented) afternoon concert presented by the Chamber Arts Society of Durham. The guest artists were a string quartet (the most common ensemble booked by these presenters), but this one was indeed unique: Quatuor Mosaïques is a period instruments quartet – more on what that means coming up. So, it all seemed a bit skewed and out-of-balance, that is until the music began.

Quatuor Mosaïques, formed in 1987 when they were all members of Nikolaus Harnoncourt‘s Concentus Musicus Wien, consists of violinists Erich Hobarth and Andrea Bischoff, violist Anita Mitterer, and cellist Christopher Coin. Although period instruments performance practice, or HIP (Historically Informed Practice) had existed for decades at that point, a string quartet performing the standard repertoire in that manner was a revolutionary and daring undertaking. Thirty years on, their triumph is evident and they still have very little competition.

Even without knowing a word of French, one can guess that this quartet’s name means, or at least implies, a “mosaic” of sound and, if compared to your standard, modern instruments string quartet, that is certainly true. The term “period instruments” can mean a variety of characteristics and might even provoke some heated discussions. Basically, the concept is performing with the types of instruments and in the style that you “probably” would have heard at or near the time when these works were first performed. The two higher, in pitch, strings on all four instruments are strung with gut strings rather than steel. This, more than anything else, gives the music that warm, less piercing sound. The bows are a bit shorter and the cellist eschews use of the endpin, instead relying on his calves to hold up the cello above the floor. There is much more to this topic, but space prohibits a complete discussion: it can easily be found online.

The program was a dream for any music lover who loves the classical style and music of the two giants from that genre: Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809). The first half had two of Mozart’s most celebrated mature quartets; it began with his String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat, K. 458, known as the “Hunt.” The name is apparent from the opening motif where one can easily imagine horns sounding in a bucolic country estate. Immediately, one can hear that we are in a completely different world of tone, style and affect from a traditional quartet. There are many subtleties and nuances that set it apart, but overall it is a less strident sound that has the feeling of being enveloped by a warm, comforting blanket. One can only speculate as to whether it is the slightly lowered pitch (instead of the modern 440 vibrations per second, “A” is set to about 415) that causes, or at least enhances, this feeling. This classical gem was a perfect work to highlight the period instruments methods as we crossed through vastly different tempi, moods and levels of technical demands.

Where the opening quartet was all sunshine and joie de vivre, Mozart’s Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421 was way off on the opposite end of the spectrum. Using a key he sparingly used, e.g. the Requiem, this is the epitome of pathos and sorrow conveyed in sound and is particularly well suited to the period instruments style. Where, usually, the opening motif is belted out as an aggressive, metallic cry, here we had a personal, inward-looking meditation on worries and woes. The long, expressive lines of the Andante movement demonstrated one of the false negative stereotypes of period instruments playing: vibrato is expressly forbidden! Although perhaps not as wide (or ostentatious!) as traditional quartets, Quatuor Mosaïques employed a generous use of vibrato in a tasteful manner.

After intermission, we got to hear from the composer where string quartets began – Franz Joseph Haydn. As the recognized “father” of this perhaps most loved chamber music vehicle, his quartets seem to be an endless well of innovation, charm and a mixture of simple joys and profundity. His 1772 Quartet in C, Op. 20, No. 2 is a masterful mixture of old and new forms and falls on modern ears as profound and spirited. A final movement labeled as Fuga a Quattro soggetti is far from Bach rehashed, but Haydn’s unique take on the ancient fugal form. This movement, in particular, showcased this ensemble’s clarity of voices that is unlike any other string quartet I’ve heard. I will leave it to physicists to explain this, but it was quite striking. Simultaneously, one clearly heard all the four string parts separate and apart, yet also melding into one unified whole.

There is probably a range of reactions to Quatuor Mosaïques’ unique sound from “just can’t get used to it” to “where have you been all my life.” Wherever a listener lies on that spectrum one thing is for sure: this was an opportunity that does not come around very often, and those at this concert got to hear the finest proponents of this style.