Relative newcomers to the chamber music scene, the Van Kujik Quartet formed in 2012, based in Paris are previous BBC Young Generation Artists. Having a prestigious resumé of teachers and mentors as well as several discs behind them, including Schubert’s Death and Maiden, they have made a notable impression in a relatively short time. They are a group who are technically accomplished and make a highly individual sound. Whether that it is for you or not is down to personal taste; with very bright violin tones and light vibrato, this group of young men have a voice all of their own.

Van Kuijk Quartet © Nikolaj Lund
Van Kuijk Quartet
© Nikolaj Lund

Haydn’s Op.76 quartets contain much interesting innovation. The fifth of this set was the earliest of the pieces on this intriguing programme. Written in approximately 1798 and published in 1799, this set comes after both of Haydn’s London visits. Ever the innovator, Haydn opens with a set of theme and variations and not the expected sonata form movement. This opening, in the bright key of D major, was very elegant, with a sophisticated air — very much suited to the Van Kuijk's sound. Whilst commendable, the character of each variation was not felt strongly. The second movement, marked Largo cantabile e mesto in the unusual and distant key of F sharp major, captured fully the sadness of Haydn’s marking. Each cadence was used as a space for a breath or poignant sigh. A minuet and trio followed, full of character, but the top line was over dominating on occasions, masking the underpinning harmonic and rhythmic interest. The repeat of the minuet didn’t add anything extra to the reading. The Presto finale movement really was full of youthful glee and a real sense of fun brought out all the humour in the music.

Ligeti’s String Quartet no. 1 “Métamorpheses nocturnes” dates from 1953-54. Cast in four linked movements, the Van Kuijks sparkled in this varied nocturnal soundscape. They were able to show what fully accomplished string players they are in this technically challenging work. Every mood and atmosphere came across with complete assurance. Their use of harmonics had a translucency, like the biting coldness and crystal clear skies of the winter night sky. One instantly knew when they moved from section to section as the characters of each were completely different. The Andante tranquillo was beautiful; the tempo di valse suitably dance-like; the subito allegro con moto was really prestissimo. They captured all the nuances of this enigmatic composition.

The unison idea that opens Schubert’s D minor quartet “Death and the Maiden”, was intense, nicely balanced, appropriately paced. The exposition of the first movement lacked Schubertian character but on reaching the development they had found their feet. Unfortunately this was short lived, the recapitulation, like the exposition, was searching for something, an uncertainty — this however, may have been the aesthetic they were aiming for. The strongest movement was the superbly played set of theme variations on Schubert’s famous song. The theme was stated with certainty, its repeat was softer, more intense. Variation 1 had much well captured light and shade. The cello line in the Variation 2 was excellent and highly expressive. The G major 4th Variation was full of lyrical sweetness, with just the gentlest vibrato warming the sound subtly. As the movement drew to a close, there was a moment of real tenderness, but perhaps missing the transitions to the major sound world. A stylish Scherzo followed, each of the sections contrasting nicely, but again perhaps missing some of Schubert's idiosyncrasies. The final movement captured the tarantella nature of the music. Each return of the rondo theme was full of skittishness, but identical and the interjecting episodes had varied and contrasting colours. Saving a final burst of energy for the final few bars, they exploded with a burst exciting of vibrancy, concluding with rich treble forte chords.

Completing the afternoon — an encore, an arrangement of Poulenc’s Les Chemins de l’amour by Jean-Christophe Masson. The Van Kujik Quartet relished this piece, the melody played with the beguiling cantabile tone, befitting of the mélodie on which this transcription is based. The harmonies were caressed lovingly and one could do nothing but smile at Poulenc in his most alluring guise.

This was a performance in which the players had clearly had complete understanding and ownership of the horizontal nature and direction of their own individual lines. This worked exceptionally well in the Ligeti. Whether they understood the vertical harmonic nature, essential for the Haydn and Schubert is open for debate, but hopefully this will come with maturity.

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