United Kingdom Haydn, Janáček, Mendelssohn: Kuss Quartet [Jana Kuss & Olivier Wille (violins), William Coleman (viola), Mikayel Hakhnazaryan (cello)], King’s Place, London, 17.10.2014 (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in D Op.50 No.6 (Hob. III:49, The Frog)
Janáček: String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.6 in F minor Op.80
The first thing that struck me when the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet began to play the first movement Allegro of Haydn’s Op.50 No.6 was the even, warm blend of their sound; the four instruments really did seem to speak as one, the separate hues suffusing to form a single, rich colour. But, as the evening progressed there was also much opportunity for individual, distinct voices to speak creating, during the whole recital, a pleasing overall balance of drama and repose.
The set of six quartets that form Haydn’s Opus 50 (1787) are known as the ‘Prussian’ quartets, dedicated as they were to the cello-playing King Frederick William II of Prussia. From the first, the Kuss Quartet demonstrated understanding of the intimacy of these Op.50 works, which are less exuberant than the Op.33 set; here the thematic material emerges organically from rich textures. There was, however, a sense of expansiveness in the first movement, Jana Kuss’s bright opening motif – a long note followed by a falling run, which is the source of all subsequent material in this monothematic movement – serving as a warm invitation to the other three players to join her in convivial dialogue. Contrasts of dynamics and sforzando accents were observed but not over-emphasised; vibrato was well-judged.
A quiet beauty characterised the D minor Poco Adagio which followed, the four players finding an expressive mezza voce and shaping the phrases sensitively, as the first movement’s opening held note was transformed into gently pulsing repeated quavers. Kuss’s melody soared confidently, while the lower voices provided a surprisingly elaborate accompaniment, which was crisp and unobtrusive. In particular, cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan negotiated the decorations nimbly; the busy counterpoint makes quite considerable demands on the cellist – presumably a nod of flattery towards King Frederick!
The Menuetto Allegretto skipped lightly through a dancing development of the Adagio’s repeating-note theme; in the Trio the Kuss Quartet made much of the theatricality of the sudden silences and eccentric harmonic twists and turns. It is from the Finale’s theme – which requires the first violin to ‘bounce’ on a single note, moving from a stopped note to an open string (officially termed bariolage) – that the quartet gets its amphibious nickname, and Jana Kuss’s croaks and leaps, and the decorative ornaments, were cleanly articulated and controlled; the Kuss Quartet enjoyed the movement’s surprises and wit, playing with gentle good humour.
By contrast, Janáček’s first String Quartet, the Kreutzer Sonata, was characterised by fervent intensity and stark juxtapositions. I found some of the contrasts almost too extreme, even violent; for example, the strained, arching motif which opens the Adagio was unexpectedly ‘withdrawn’ but from this muted gesture and restrained sound, the Con moto quaver theme burst explosively; Oliver Wille’s second violin was particularly theatrical, but I found the strong, hard tone, overly forceful for what is essentially a folky reminiscence. There is indeed much turmoil and angst in this quartet, and this was certainly impassioned, driving playing, but the promotion of small, individual interjections in this way to some extent weakened the sense of evolution, and the separate episodes did not fully cohere into a convincing whole.
The second movement Con Moto provided the Kuss Quartet which numerous opportunity to explore divergent colours and effects; particularly memorable was the dialogue between Hakhnazaryan’s persistent, tight trills and the ghostly sul ponticello tremolo interruptions of the other three instruments. The main polka-like theme had a sardonic ‘nip’ about it, suggestive perhaps of the bitterness of the fateful encounter evoked by the eerie tremolo gesture. The warmth of Kuss’s final melodic elaboration did, however, allow for more consoling intimations; after aggressively articulated crotchets from the first violin, answered by the cello, the final quiet chord seemed latent with chillingly foreboding.
A more sentimental mood was evoked by the canonic duet for Kuss and Hakhnazaryan which opened the third movement but this was rapidly dispelled by the brutal sul ponticelli intrusions of the middle voices, and the effective contrast between legato and accented crotchets in the Vivo increased the tension further. A growing sense of tragedy ensued in the Finale, the plaintive gesture from the opening of the first movement alternating with passages of violent agitation. There was no doubt that the Kuss Quartet captured the volatility of Janáček’s score, but I felt that there was no need to ‘interpret’ quite so insistently; the music is innately and astonishingly dramatic and will speak for itself.
Mendelssohn’s final quartet, Op. 80 in F minor, found the Kuss Quartet on more instinctive territory; here, there was autobiographical lamentation to match Janáček’s tragic musical narrative (written in 1847, the quartet was the composer’s musical response to the death of his cherished sister, Fanny shortly before), but it emerged naturally through the music and was not imposed from without. The rapid semi-quavers which commence the Allegro vivace assai were ferociously vigorous, suggestive of painful anxiety and unrest, but subsequently there was a more controlled melancholy in the first violin’s lyrical theme and some beautifully piano playing in the brief major-key episode towards the close of the movement.
The syncopation and irregular accents of the Allegro assai scherzo highlighted the Kuss Quartet’s excellent ensemble; and the players exploited the pairing of the two lower voices against the violins’ eerie melody, in the sparse Trio, to fine expressive effect. After the evident anger of the spiky scherzo, the Adagio withdrew into a more intimate melancholy, perfectly captured by Kuss’s sighing opening melody. But, there was surging passion here too, at the movement’s climax, and this desperate energy resumed in the Finale which raced unceasingly onwards to the final violent musical maelstrom of the concluding bars.
Julius Benedict, a boyhood friend of Mendelssohn, declared that, ‘It would be difficult to cite any piece of music which so completely impresses the listener with a sensation of gloomy foreboding, of anguish of mind, and of the most poetic melancholy’. The Kuss Quartet powerfully conveyed such emotions while at the same time revealing a deep affection and affinity for Mendelssohn’s fervent musical confession.