Founded in 2012 in Paris, the Quatuor Van Kuijk is still young for an art form where true group cohesiveness can take years to achieve. Nevertheless, success came early, and the ensemble’s renown and exposure kept growing. For their hour-long performance in Lugano (sparsely attended, but globally streamed), they selected two major works composed a century apart and evidently quite different stylistically, but both following the Beethovenian example of sharing a thematic nucleus between multiple movements. In Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, a quotation from the composer’s earlier song Ist es wahr(Is it true?) is used as the main theme of the first movement and reappears, in different guises, in the following ones, explicitly returning at the very end. Bartók’s five-parts String Quartet no. 4 has a symmetrical, arch-like structure with the first and last movements and, respectively, the second and the fourth ones thematically linked.

Quatuor Van Kuijk
© LuganoMusica

Mendelssohn was only 18 when he composed his Op.13. Despite being undoubtedly in the shadow of Beethoven’s late quartets, it is an opus of great inventiveness and a means for the young composer to display his mastery of the contrapuntal art. The Van Kuijks clearly underlined the reminiscences of Beethoven’s Op.95 in the middle, fugal, section of the Adagio, with the melodic line moving from the viola to the second violin, or the way the handling of the “Ist es wahr?” three-note motif recalls the Muss es sein? of Op.135. But where Beethoven’s writing is contemplative and severe, Mendelssohn’s is ardent and youthful. The Allegro vivace segment in the first movement and the Presto in the last are occasionally boisterous. The Intermezzo seems to invoke a fairyland. Moments of fully-fledged Romantic ebullience were not sufficiently brought forward in a rendition marked by rationalism where the first violinist, Nicolas Van Kuijk, never adopted any soloistic tendencies and the artists’ main concern was revealing the work’s rich ossature which they certainly did.

The interpreters took a similar approach with Bartók’s extraordinary Fourth, highlighting its novel formal structure, the many unusual sonic effects, the unsettling combinations of harsh dissonances and awkward rhythmic patterns. They easily proved their mettle in a score full of technical difficulties that might not be immediately apparent, communicating with great directness the obsessive nature of Bartók’s music. The first movement with its theme itself a little arch – three ascending notes followed by three descending ones – was full of vigour. The second had a phantasmagorical air; maybe Mendelssohn would have composed something similar, had he lived in the 20th century. In the slow, lyrical, more consonant Non troppo lento – the composer called it the “kernel” of the work – Anthony Kondo’s solo cello intervention and the first violin’s response sounded less improvisational than they should have. The folkloric inflexions – here and in the last movement – were perfectly integrated in the modernistic soundscape, but lacked a certain old-fashioned charm.

As an encore, the French quartet offered a transcription of Les Chemins de l’amour, the 1940 mélodie that Francis Poulenc composed on lyrics by Jean Anouilh. It was a straightforward rendition of the valse-like song, without the unnecessary rubatos that many sopranos adorn it with, emphasising its indebtedness to café concert music and, at the same time, the way it foreshadows the sonic world of Poulenc’s superb Dialogues des Carmélites.

This performance was reviewed from the LuganoMusica live video stream