The Van Kuijk Quartet Excel in Mozart but Disappoint in Smetana

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Smetana: Van Kuijk Quartet [Nicolas Van Kuijk, Sylvain Favre-Bulle (violin); Grégoire Veccion (viola); François Robin (cello)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 17.5.2016 (CC)

Mozart – String Quartet in C, K 465, “Dissonance” (1785)
Smetana – String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, “From My Life” (1876)

Winner of the First, Best Beethoven and Best Haydn prizes at the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition (and also joining the BBC New Generation Artists scheme this season), the young Van Kuijk Quartet, comprising four young Frenchmen, is certainly a class act. This concert formed part of the Wigmore’s “Emerging Talent” series, and talent there is aplenty; but some of it is as yet, on the present showing, a little unfocused.

We heard two string quartets and two very different performances: the Mozart, a model of its kind, exquisitely sculpted, gorgeously wrought, the Smetana far less within the music. The stage setup for both performances had the two violins on the left, cello facing outwards and viola on the right. Low or no vibrato in the famous opening Adagio of the Mozart gave this a clean, almost period feel; the inclusion of the exposition repeat came as no surprise in this clothing. One of the most notable aspects of this performance was the presence of a proper pianissimo, something so often missing these days. There was great tuning, too, particularly notable in the harmonically exploratory development section. There was beauty in the long violin/cello dialogues of the Adagio cantabile – first violinist’s Nicolas Van Kuijk’s tone particularly sweet. Most of all, what came across was an awareness of the poignant, sometimes even pungent nature of Mozart’s harmonic processes in this movement. The cleanliness of the Menuetto found the players “landing” on chords beautifully; the Trio was simply stunning, determined and perfectly weighted. Only a slightly tentative return to the Menuetto set things aslant; the finale held huge drama, putting into strong relief the sunnier passages. Harmonic darkenings worked to great effect; this movement was remarkably varied terrain, beautifully negotiated.

Smetana’s wonderfully dark First Quartet, “From My Life”, was heard in a remarkable performance by the Škampa String Quartet at LSO St Luke’s which I reviewed back in February this year. A snapshot of the composer’s pain and his encroaching deafness (including the shrill imitation of tinnitus at one point), this is a a remarkable work in which pain is, or should be, raw. The piece opens, effectively, with an Urschrei, a chord that seems to be a cry from the heart; here, though, it was loud(-ish) and rather polite. Great playing from violist Grégoire Veccioni set things off on the right foot; it was a pity  that Van Kuijk’s versions of the theme were rather unidiomatic, rather more careful. A lot of edges were softened during this first movement; worse, perhaps, the folkish dance element of the ensuing Allegro moderato was far too polite and with little or no sense of rusticity, and no sense of fun. It was a pity, too, that François Robin’s long solo that opens the Largo sostenuto was merely acceptable; the concentration accorded the hymnic theme that follows for full quartet was some recompense, a theme that rose to give some – if not biting – intensity; the big, climactic chordal statement, full of stopping, was the saddest part of the entire performance, literal and devoid of meaning. A too-careful finale, under-tempo and with themes that refused to trip along and an only fairly dramatic interruption by that high, sustained violin note representing the composer’s pain and illness (as opposed to an earth-shattering moment) left an impression that overall Smetana’s masterwork had received short shrift. That was a shame given the polished, stylish Mozart.

Colin Clarke




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