Since its formation four years ago, the young ensemble Quatuor Van Kuijk has been bagging numerous competition prizes and accumulating international acclaim. The four musicians have made themselves known in major venues, are to become laureates of the Aix-en-Provence Festival Academy and are joining the Echo Rising Star roster for the coming season. After glowing reviews for their first Mozart release, expectations for what is to come are high, and so were mine for this evening.

Quatuor Van Kuijk © Adrien Vecchioni
Quatuor Van Kuijk
© Adrien Vecchioni

Wittily and winningly presented by second violinist Sylvain Favre-Bulle, who is also a great communicator musically, the quartet embarked on an evening of French music. Why critics, including one particularly sharp-tongued German colleague, are raving was easy to hear. Theirs was a no-nonsense approach to the music that is so rich in texture, colour, is so quick to change mood and so full of sensuality such as Debussy's quartet closing the evening, giving it an entirely new sonic attire. While Debussy was already an established composer when it was written in 1893, his distinctive tonal language only developed at this time. As he departed from the quartet preset of Viennese Classicism, without entirely abandoning it, other influences of Russian music as well as the gamelan music of Java found their way into the composition. While contemporary audiences offered a mixed response and traditionalist reviewers harshly criticised it, the quartet is now viewed as a milestone in Debussy's oeuvre and was a strong influence on the string quartets of other composers, including Bartók and Ravel.

Its first movement, Animé et très décidé, was indeed decisively played and with great density, including a beautiful episode of second violin and viola in perfectly matched timbres. The second, very rhythmical movement was precise in the pizzicati and displayed a good portion of sly humour in the rough interjections. After the breathy third movement, the players seemed to be spurring each other on to even more furious playing in the near-explosive fourth, making for a fitting close to the night.

Preceding the interval were pleasant transcriptions of three Poulenc Mélodies for quartet. The first two belied their composer with timid colouring; the final Fleurs, however, a lovely waltz, spread some stereotypical scent of France and didn't lose its flair by the quartet's unsentimental approach.

Quatuor Van Kuijk © Adrien Vecchioni
Quatuor Van Kuijk
© Adrien Vecchioni

The highlight was Ravel's Quatuor à cordes, which had opened the evening. Composed in the spring of 1903, the movements of this quartet bear the strong structural imprint of that of Debussy, also making the second a Scherzo opening with pizzicato passages. While the first few bars had a distinctive roughness around the edges, the ensemble soon found together and moved more fluently, the colours of the musical aquarelle flowing into one another seamlessly. Their sound was slender and direct, avoiding any false pomposity, but flexible and developed a thematic recapitulation of great beauty. Better still was the second movement, in which many hear a reflection of the composer's Basque origins. It had the fullest, most focussed, most colourful pizzicato and an organic transition to the movement's arco line by means of carefully nuanced dynamics. The only fly in the ointment was a brief pause in the cello's pizzicato line towards the end to turn a page, temporarily breaking the spell and robbing the music of its momentum. Not overloading the sound with sentiment, the Van Kuijks kept up the tension throughout the slow third movement and then bounced on the fourth forcefully, but also with joy at the unrestrained music.

This very sober reading and crisp, fresh playing immediately set this performance apart from any other I've heard so far, and one would have been forgiven for feeling a little wary that this may not carry through an entire evening – but unnecessarily so. What a performance that elicits appreciative murmuring after the first movement of the night, and an excited tension amongst the audience that silently shouts "bravo" after the second!

****1