City Recital Hall, Sydney: 29 September, 2012
The Kuss Quartet
Jana Kuss – violin
Oliver Wille – violin
William Coleman – viola
Mikayel Hakhnazaryan – cello
Naoko Shimizu – viola
Gordon Kerry – String Quintet (2012)
Mozart – String Quartet no. 21 in D major K575
György Kurtág – Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, opus 28
Brahms – String Quintet no. 2 in G major, opus 111
It is always fun when a new string quartet comes to town, especially when they bring strange and different music with them. György Kurtág is not very strange, but nonetheless somewhat rare around here, and more importantly excellent listening, so I’m grateful to the Kuss Quartet for bringing it, even if short, though holding its own among the more usual fair. And the encore of Mozart’s Cassation in C was entirely beyond the call of duty in such an enormous and dense program, especially considering the concentrated, caring manner of their playing.
Mozart’s quartet in D showed very nicely the the musician’s dynamics through their understanding of the classical style. The fine balance of the group and the modesty of the way they address the music and the audience, the delicate, airy, but firm and resonant tone of their ensemble playing, the detailed texture of their full sound, did justice to Mozart’s style of quartet writing here — deceptively “traditional,” but with his own unique, private harmonic language doing so much of the talking. The Kuss Quartet’s playing of it speaks very articulately. They seem to get on together in an easy musical friendship, with a degree of space for each member — Mikayel Hakhnazaryan’s cello is the most provocative member of the group, if you can call it that, though he seems to keep a controlled reign on the (relatively) enormous dynamic range of his instrument, so not an easy or obvious kind of provocation.
The addition of Naoko Shimizu extended, rather than filled out the sound, without smothering the group’s voice. Indeed she added a new, but not entirely foreign, element with her style of phrasing and her keen but lightish touch. The choice of the new Gordon Kerry quintet — the Australian composer whose music will and has featured in most of Musica Viva’s traveling chamber groups this year — and the Brahms quintet gave the violas a decent piece of the action and plenty of notes for her to play.
With its harmonies becoming rich, but heavy, Kerry’s work benefited from the ensemble’s airiness of tone. Though I haven’t been a big fan of his music so far this year, this one appealed to me the most. It begins with a kind of dialogue between the two violas on the right and the two violins on the left in a loose-ish style of counterpoint, with very light vibrato-less brushing of the strings. Becoming richer as the cellos enters, almost upsetting this balance. The piece develops in a clear structure of five movements alternating slow and fast. The fast become quite distressed, even disturbing, the chords almost unwieldy in a very late-romantic style, with arbitrary quickly changing dynamics, and irregular, at times borderline lurchy rhythms. The sound, the music, is at times ugly too, purposefully so of course. But the music lifts itself up, in an unlabored way, to an ecstatic climax, where the harmonies become clearer, though it ends in a quiet though not obvious chord which is not exactly a resolution.
The Brahms quintet lost something in being placed after the very satisfying Kutág quartet (more on this later). They played it with intense passion but a light touch, and great energy, especially in the hands of first violin Jana Kuss. Her very individually felt passionate expression was unique, far from one size fits all, a very flowing long-reaching kind of phrasing, which doesn’t hurry the psychology of the music, music which does take its own time — it does have a tendency to spread out. Though some sections perhaps they let slip by with less convincing vitality, though no less energy, the four movements seemed irreducible, self contained sections, yet fit quite snuggly without mortar into an arc.
The Kuss Quartet seems to be particularly zealous, in a good way, about the music of György Kurtág. Their style and sensibility seems to find a friend in his music. The Officium Breve is in several very short, carefully crafted parts with silence in between many of them. The silence is not emptiness, it is still music, though there is no movement in the physical sense; they are not necessarily suspenseful or full or pregnant silences, they are not asked to pay their way in dramatic effect, rather they are contemplative, as the entire piece is. The piece reminds me of a gothic cathedral, with stylistically different parts, made generations apart, all harmoniously joined together, making up unmeasurable interstices to form a monumental space which suggests unfathomable heights, each part you come across inviting a private reaction at a very human level. But we don’t want to push the analogy between music and architecture too far: “frozen music” sounds about as appealing as frozen vegetables, or frozen dinner, or frozen yogurt.
The music is also like an interstellar journey through space — bright, full encounters with stars and planets, each unique and irreplaceable, having been placed by nature over such an inhumanly long time, joined together by long expanses of “void,” all black and points of subtly colored starlight, but no less full of wonder. The phrases of music have a dense private language, very carefully and economically written down, something like Shakespeare’s poetry, or perhaps more like Yeats’, or even Robert Graves’. Really it is not like anything because it is music — it feels its way, like all of us, but with such a clear image of where it is and where it is going, only this is a non-visual, nonverbal image. Kurtág even uses quotations — of Anton Webern and his teacher-mentor in Hungary Endre Szervánszky — in a unique, personal, very fitting way, very different from Stravinsky’s use of quotations, for example. We do need to hear more of this music here. We shouldn’t be starved of music like Kurtág’s and moreover his source of inspiration (after leaving Hungary for Paris), Webern and the rest of the Second Viennese School, so that they become special treats encountered by chance.