The Berlin-based Kuss Quartett gave a refreshing and dynamic performance at the Goethe Institut on April 17 of an all German-Austrian program in preparation for its performance at Carnegie Hall next week. The concert’s intimate setting, the first floor ballroom of a 19th-century townhouse, which was filled to capacity with about a hundred listeners and forcing the front row to sit only about four feet away from the musicians, contributed to the experience of extraordinary immediacy.
The quartet was founded by its violinists, Jana Kuss (first violin) and Oliver Wille in 1981, when they were only 14 years old. Raised in East Berlin, Kuss and Wille studied with Eberhard Feltz at the prestigious Berlin Musikhochschule. After the fall of the wall, they met Walter Levin, long-time primarius of the LaSalle String Quartet, who as Fellow at the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg was giving master classes for quartet players.
In 2002, the quartet acquired its superb violist William Coleman, who studied both in Salzburg with Thomas Riebl and Veronika Hagen at the New England Conservatory with Kim Kashkanian. He received his fine-tuning from the witheringly sharp Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados. Last but not least, the quartet was joined in 2008 by its exquisite cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan, who can produce a tone so full, deep, and rich, and in rather stark contrast to the rushed and almost military (and sometimes tonally flat) dynamism of the two violinists, that the listener increasingly seeks refuge in this cellist as the anchor in the unfolding gales of sound.
The evening began with a surprising rendition of Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat major, K 458. Surprising, because Kuss decided to play without vibrato, making this fourth of Mozart’s quartets dedicated to Haydn sound raw, immediate, unpolished, unsweet. The quartet unleashed the allegro vivace assai with great vigor, showcasing right away one the quartet’s greatest strength: absolute precision of timing that produces an uncanny togetherness, fusing four individuals into strongly connected members of one musical body.
It was the perfection of ensemble playing while granting free reign to dynamic musicality of each player that made the quartet’s performance of Alban Berg’s String Quartet op. 3 of 1910 (revised in 1924) the highlight of the evening. Composed while Berg was studying with Arnold Schönberg in Vienna, but created outside the classroom, opus 3 is the first work in which Berg renounced tonality as a principle of form and moved toward the “free atonality” Schönberg had pioneered just a few years earlier (1908) in his second string quartet, op. 10. Although Berg preserved certain structural elements of the traditional sonata form in each of the two movements, he stretches those forms in the execution creating a dense net of themes and motifs that engage the players in an intense, emotionally charged dialogue or tetra-logue.
The true challenge for performers is Berg’s obsessively detailed notation for many of the passages, how the tone is to be produced from scraping metallically near the bridge to playing flautando near the fingerboard. When followed closely, as was the case last night, these notations produce a huge range of tonal expressions reflecting the desperate intensity of Berg’s emotions at the time when his lover’s father tyrannically opposed the couple’s marriage. The Kuss quartet’s astounding precision, energy, technical perfection, and cool analytic approach presented a Berg composition that was as emotionally explosive and draining (the allusions to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the middle of the second movement stood out clearly) as it was intellectually rewarding.
The evening finished almost conventionally with Johannes Brahms’ 1876 String Quartet in B-flat major, op 67, which in its first movement contains a courteous bow to Mozart by citing a motif from the “Jagd Quartett” KV 458 that had opened the program. At the end of the night Kuss was playing romantically and musically with full vibrato, allowing her instrument to sing; while in the aptly named “agitato” of the third movement, the gorgeously smooth violist William Coleman grasped his opportunity to shine, producing a chocolaty, rich tone echoed by the cello and finally soothing even the antsy violins.
It was an extraordinary evening and for the sustained applause, the Kuss quartet thanked the audience with two lovely Armenian folksongs.