Addressing the audience, Oliver Wille — second violin of the Kuss Quartet – explained the need to change the opening work of the programme after an unfortunate accident suffered by Jana Kuss, the quartet's leader, who was seated in a wheelchair. Originally programmed was Beethoven’s string quartet Op.18 no.3, replacing it with his last published work in the genre, Op.135. The Kuss’ sound was balanced from the outset; the first movement Allegretto had an elegance and a whimsical character contrasting with the Vivace second movement, in which the quartet brought lightness that changed subtly in the darker moments. The sonorous third movement had a richness and was the highlight of the work. Carefully controlled vibrato prevented any over sentimentality, whilst each cadence punctuated the music naturally. The interplay of the players was clear with a certain level of introspection between them. The closing movement — Grave ma non troppo tratto—Allegro – began with anguish and each of the motifs was given different shaping by the individual players, as they explored different ways of expressing these small musical ideas.

The Kuss Quartet © Rüdiger Schestag
The Kuss Quartet
© Rüdiger Schestag

Wille addressed the audience once again, eloquently explaining their connection to the composer György Kurtág, with whom the Kuss Quartet has a long association. Playing his Officium Breve, composed 1988-89 this sequence of 15 miniatures chiefly pays homage to one of Kurtág’s teachers, Endre Szervánszky. Each of the movements are brief musical snapshots, lasting less than a minute in some cases, and are based on the smallest motivic fragments, revealing the influence of Anton Webern. The Kuss Quartet played this work with real empathy, evoking strong emotional content. This mostly dark intense work has thin but interesting textures and takes a complete journey from darkness to light. The opening Largo is tender, whilst the third movement has an austere quality. The later movements capture a Shostakovich-style bleakness encapsulated within the harmonic vocabulary of Webern. On reaching the final Larghetto, the work comes closest to conventional tonality, with a warmth of feeling, convincingly portrayed.

Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131, is arguably the pinnacle of his string quartet writing. The seven movements play without a break and unfold naturally in what was a mostly self-absorbing performance. The opening fugue had a unity, each player mirroring the expression of the subject with flawless intonation, shaping the phrases with the identical application of vibrato. This slow movement was slightly aloof, but with a growing but measured intensity throughout. The second movement’s lyrical and jaunty character was exploited to its full potential. The most convincing sense of a musical conversation was found in the third movement which continued into the fourth. Both had increasing levels of communication which finally peaked in the seventh movement. Here the intense chemistry between the players bloomed as they appeared to relax fully into the music. An encore followed, the finale of the quartet that should have opened the concert which was bustling with vivacious animation and energy.

The links between the pieces was clear in the use of motifs, creating unity in the programme. The playing of the Kuss Quartet was admirable for the balance, technical precision and perfect intonation throughout the afternoon. However, for the most part it felt as if the audience and quartet were on parallel paths through the music. These paths coming close to touching on occasions, but the high level of introspection from the players prevented a consistent unanimous experience for all.

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