Kohn’s Quartet No 16 – a Twenty-First Century Masterpiece?

15/11/2015

Beethoven, Kohn: The Villiers Quartet, St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Church, Sheffield, 14.11.2015. (JK)

Beethoven: String Quartet Opus 18 no. 6
Kohn: 16th String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet op 59 no. 2

The Villiers quartet performed Beethoven’s Opus 18 no. 6 with enormous vitality and precision. Their exquisite ensemble playing made the entire work enjoyable. The dash of the first movement brought immediate smiles between the players as well as the audience. Their sweet tone in the second movement brought instant pleasure whilst the humour of the third movement had the players almost dancing out of their seats. The drama of the opening of the last movement was happily dissipated by the joyous playing that brought the finale to a close. There could have been no better opening to a chamber concert.

Kohn’s 16th Quartet was a huge contrast in its breadth and language. Beginning with a tiny figure in the cello, the first movement gradually built up into a headlong drive that seemed to suffuse the entire work. The second movement’s obvious comedy element rapidly climbed into the instruments’ highest registers that left me wondering where we would be taken next. The answer came from a wonderful viola solo that was taken up by the others into a huge climax that suddenly descended into a sinister figure. Throughout this movement the drive of the first two movements was pressing us forward into the fourth movement whose dance music was evidently enjoyed by the players. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the fifth and final movement. Performed pianissimo throughout, the slow moving figures cast a mesmeric effect across the entire audience. After the concluding softest of soft chords, the audience sat, transfixed in total silence for nearly half a minute. The quartet and the attending composer took well-deserved, prolonged applause.

The Beethoven Opus 59 no. 2 performed after the interval was, despite its excellent presentation, something of an anticlimax. The ominous opening was given a veiled feeling whilst the second movement showed Beethoven ruminating to himself. The only way that this movement can be pulled off is by the players speaking to one another whilst we, in the audience, are given the opportunity to overhear the conversation. The Villiers managed this although it was occasionally difficult to understand whether it was the composer reflecting to himself or the players puzzling their way through this ambiguous movement. The uncertainties of the third movement with its cross rhythms was given a spirited performance that led into a bright performance of the finale. The generous tone and concision provided for this last movement gave the music a degree of certainty that may have occluded some of the feeling of the composer searching, rather than discovering, any answers.

As I left the hall along with other members of the audience, I could see Ray Kohn going backstage – no doubt to congratulate the Villiers on their wonderful performance of his work – and I overheard many members of the audience talking amongst themselves about what they had heard. Over and over again they spoke about that amazing final movement of Kohn’s 16th quartet. I left feeling that I had perhaps witnessed a most unusual event – the birth of a 21st century masterpiece.

Joseph Kovaks

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