For two weeks each year since June 2011, Tokyo's Suntory Hall has been running its Chamber Music Garden festival, of which one of the climaxes is a complete cycle of Beethoven's string quartets played by a single group each year. This year, the torch was handed from the Cuarteto Casals to the Kuss Quartet.

The Kuss Quartet
© Suntory Hall

This 2019 version had also another big bonus: the Kuss Quartet played on the Stradivarius Paganini set owned by the Nippon Music Foundation – a set of two violins, viola and cello from Stradivarius' Cremona workshop in the early 19th century which became the stuff of legend when it was selected for his string quartet playing by none other than Paganini himself. The Tokyo String Quartet used this set for nearly 15 seasons, but no longer do so. Perhaps helped by the Nippon Music Foundation's headquarters being a mere five minute walk from Suntory Hall, the Kuss Quartet were allowed to use them for this festival.

The Kuss Quartet split the quartets over five concerts, choosing to play them in chronological order. Op.18 and Op.59 each occupied a whole concert. The third concert was a little more relaxed, with Op.74, 95 and 127, the fourth was for the great Op.132 and Op.130. Beethoven enthusiasts may have felt that the last concert, comprising Op.131 and 135, would have been too short, and the Kuss therefore prepared something special: a newly commissioned piece by Bruno Mantovani to close the long journey.

Having finished the fourth concert with the enormous Grosse Fuge, the Kuss quartet resumed proceedings with another fugue section, starting the fifth and final concert with Op.131. Surprisingly, the four musicians did not care so much about creating perfectly unified figures for each voice. The whole sound they created was less than perfectly smooth and their timbre less than perfectly unified. It seemed that they were trying to listen to what their instruments wanted to say. Throughout the following movements, first violin Jana Kuss created penetrating high notes more directly than usual, cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan sang very freely when his turns came. Violist William Coleman looked as if he was enjoying the fascination of taming this particular shrew, and only second violinist Oliver Wille sounded his usual self, trying to stay calm in this unusual situation. More than 30 minutes of interplay between players and instruments came to a conclusion at the final Allegro, which they had clearly decided to make as dramatic as possible. The strongly dotted main theme was played at the most absolute fortissimo, following which the second theme’s long descending line (which jumps to three high notes) was sung slowly and faintly in a Tchaikovsky-like molto pianissimo, a contrast far greater than Beethoven indicated. The audience's applause came like a storm.

After a short break, Beethoven’s final essay for string quartet was presented as decisively as the ending of Op.131. At the end of the last 4th movement’s enigmatic Adagio introduction, there arrived the most precious moment of the night (or, maybe, for this whole cycle). I have never heard such a quiet yet eloquent pianissimo sound from a string quartet, and I believe that such beautiful moment would not have been possible without the help of Paganini instruments. At the very last, the Kuss Quartet found a sincere common voice with their short term companions.

We had one more piece to listen to: French composer Mantovani’s String quartet no. 6 “Beethoveniana”. Before the performance, Oliver Wille made a short comment, "It is a comic encore piece with themes from all 16 Beethoven quartets." Starting with an oddly arranged motif from the first bar of Op.18 no.1, several motifs of quartets were stretched and transformed into drones. Over the top of this background, various short motifs dressed in modern clothes appeared and left. In some parts, Beethoven's freakish rhythmic writing was pushed in more complicated ways. Lastly, Jana Kuss started the final fugue from the third Razumovsky's quartet, and everyone followed her to the end. Mantovani knew well what Beethoven did and what he did not, or could not. Listening to this technically perfect performance, the audience might have known that for Kuss Quartet, it would have been a simple task just to play beautifully, but it seemed that the final applause was blended with a certain amount of confusion.

For those who expected perfectly balanced, highly uniformed and technically polished masterly string quartet playing, this Kuss Quartet version of Beethoven might be disappointing. But Kuss Quartet must surely have enjoyed those 5 days, as have I.