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Review | Kuss Quartet —perfect timing, hairpin dynamics and pools of pianissimo delicacy

By Jeff Brown, The Times

Nothing stops Jana Kuss, the violinist and co-founder of the Kuss Quartet, which is based in Berlin. She may have suffered a bad fall last month, but she still progressed on to the Wigmore Hall stage at considerable speed, armed with two crutches, a comforting pink cardigan and a waiting wheelchair that allowed elevation of her right leg. I’m sure that Beethoven, the concert’s chief attraction, would have cheered her indomitable spirit, although he might not have liked everything Kuss and her team-mates played.

I’m thinking here of the Wigmore Hall’s co-commission Beethoveniana, the sixth string quartet of the French composer Bruno Mantovani, who had the novel idea of celebrating the composer in his anniversary year by constructing a 12-minute work solely using tiny quotations from Beethoven’s complete set of quartets (16, plus the Grosse Fuge). Some stolen gestures — scurryings, twiddlings — were so generic, bent out of shape or stretched into a fashionable 21st-century blur that identifying them might have stumped even that detective-violinist Sherlock Holmes. Elsewhere, familiar chords, rhythms and fugal entries (the final bars of Op 59, No 3) rose from the slithering fog to amuse, provoke, vaguely infuriate or, in my case, all three.

Luckily the ensemble, founded in 1991 and settled in its personnel since 2008, also included genuine Beethoven, two late quartets, Op 131 and Op 135, delivered with flaming passion and a strong ensemble spirit, for all the differences in the players’ artistic personalities. Kuss (first violin) tended towards thin notes of steel, while Mikayel Hakhnazaryan’s cello, the exact opposite, offered dark hues and heart. Oliver Wille (second violin) stayed nimble and bright, while William Coleman was perfect for the viola: unfussy, elegant, the quartet’s quiet inner voice.

Listening to these variegated four accentuate and exchange phrases, as at the start of the expansive and kaleidoscopic Op 131, gave us the best joys of the night, although their perfect timing, hairpin dynamics and pools of pianissimo delicacy, wedged in between gruff fury, equally demanded by Op 135, were close runners- up.

What they never offered, thankfully for Beethoven, was a varnished, overmanicured sound. There was always a sense of wild imagination and music-making on the run, something that even spiralled out of their encore, the scampering finale of Op 18 No 3, generally one of Beethoven’s calmer creations. Impetuosity and élan are the Kuss Quartet’s watchwords. And even crutches don’t stop them.


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