The claim from Kuss: “[We] seek to restore the string quartet at the cutting edge of cultural and compositional life, with past music played modernly in diverse venues such as concert halls, nightclubs and hip-hop spaces.”
What this meant on April 17 at the Goethe-Institut in Boston was that a single, high-concept style was imposed by the Kuss String Quartet on music of Mozart, Berg and Brahms. In the opening work, Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458, “Hunt”, that approach seemed at first refreshing. There was very little rubato and absolutely no vibrato or portamento. In the allegro vivace assai first movement the focus seemed to be on relentless rhythmic drive, vivid accents, tiered dynamics, and avoidance of legato. Already by the menuetto second movement, however, one was yearning for a bit of relaxation and gemütlichkeit, but none was to be had. The general impression was of an early music group on steroids.
Alban Berg’s Quartet, op. 3 was the piece most amenable to the Kuss’s approach. Here one had a sense that the group was succeeding in building a massive architecture from bold gestures — loud, louder and loudest, even though here as well, especially in the Langsam first movement, one would have welcomed bit of saftig lyricism as a leavening contrast.
Brahms’s Quartet op. 67 in B-flat major was the major casualty of the evening. Here one hoped for a noble line and rhythmic flexibility but heard instead more of the Kuss’s misguided attempt at cutting edge (Bernard Herrmann’s shower scene in Psycho, anyone?). And their digging into the strings, over-rosined, vibrato-less approach here also failed to ameliorate some queasy intonation from the upper strings. This was the least idiomatic Brahms playing this listener has ever heard from a German foursome.
It was only in the second encore, an arrangement of an Armenian folksong, that the Kuss allowed itself a brief departure from its polemic. Finally some songfullness, breathing and juicy slides were permissible. The Goethe-Institut Boston was primed for hip-hop just as the quartet made its departure.