The BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme has proven time and time again that as well as supporting excellent emerging artists, the synergy created in the collaborations formed between the artists is certainly something to celebrate. Today’s Proms Chamber Music at Cadogan Hall was a perfect example of this in action. The Paris-based Quatuor Van Kuijk were joined by the Belgian clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe for a lively and joyful performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. But before that, the quartet gave us a world première, preceded by Webern’s Langsamer Satz, completing a nicely varied programme for the Van Kuijk’s Prom debut.

Quatuor Van Kuijk © CLB Management
Quatuor Van Kuijk
© CLB Management

Webern’s Langsamer Satz from 1905 was inspired by a hiking trip with his cousin, later to become his wife, and is highly Romantic, full of passionate longing. In his diary, he wrote: “To walk forever like this among the flowers, with my dearest one beside me, to feel oneself so entirely at one with the Universe, without care, free as the lark in the sky above – oh, what splendour … Our love rose to infinite heights and filled the Universe. Two souls were enraptured.” His musical expression of this passion was clearly influenced by his teacher Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, although Webern’s work holds less tragedy and is ultimately a more straightforward statement of love. Van Kuijk played the opening first violin solo with authority, underpinned by rich harmonies from the other players, setting the tone for a highly assured performance. 

The quartet relished the Romantic ebb and flow of Webern’s youthful writing, building to a passionate first unison climax. The muted high pianissimo violin that followed was touchingly fragile, and the feathery accompaniment when the viola takes over the melodic line was delicately subtle. The quartet consistently demonstrated this ability to play really quietly with confidence, as well as giving full intensity to the moments of high drama.

French composer and pianist Laurent Durupt is also Paris based, but was present for today’s première of his single movement for string quartet, Grids for Greed. In a short but informative introduction with presenter Petroc Trelawny, he described some of the layers of meaning behind his piece, all of which have in common the tension between control and structure, and the rough, improvisatory or unconscious. His piece began with striking entries, with strong attack from the Van Kuijks, sometimes coinciding, sometimes closely staggered, gradually separating. So immediately there is a sense of control being undermined by the individual players going their own way. Durupt interrupts proceedings with moments of pause, leaving one or two players on held notes, before introducing a succession of new ideas. The violins bring in a slow sliding motif, over throbbing chords from the viola and cello, and the piece builds with a return of the opening idea, rising to an abrasive climax to finish. The Van Kuijk’s command of this complex piece was impressive, managing the tension between the structural architecture and the more improvisatory, individually expressive writing.  

For the Mozart, Van Wauwe was happily positioned in the centre of the quartet, rather than a ‘leader’ position for a totally collaborative performance. One suspects Durupt’s exploration of the tension between formal structure and individual expression may have influenced their performance here too. Tempos were not rigidly adhered to, stretched with a fair bit of rubato. The pace set for all the movements was brisk – a little more space to breathe would have enhanced the slow movement. However, the warmth of tone from Wauwe’s clarinet was matched by rich string playing. The first movement had smooth, fluid lines, with poised articulation, and the clarinet ‘sang’ the lyrical lines of the slow movement with great beauty. The Minuet and its two Trios were jaunty, with added snapped rhythms from the first violin in the first Trio, and a light-footed dance with subtle ornamentation from the clarinet in the second Trio – further examples of that tension of individual expression within Mozart’s formal ‘grid’. The two violins’ entry for the Finale was not entirely unanimous, but they soon settled into a finely judged reading. The clarinet slipped into the background when required in the second variation, for example, and then as the virtuosic heat rose, the rippling clarinet was matched by tight rapid runs from the first violin. With a cadenza-like flourish from the clarinet, the final coda dash to the finish brought their spirited performance to a rousing conclusion.

For their encore, the quartet generously gave the limelight to Wauwe for the Rondo from Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, a virtuosic, even operatic showpiece for the clarinet, played with brilliance and charm from Wauwe, rounding off a great show of chamber excellence in widely varied repertoire from these young artists.