Kuss Quartet, The Stoller Hall, 12 October 2017.

The Stoller Hall is still so new to Manchester that the distinctive smell of the wood which lines most of the auditorium’s walls subtly pervades its attendant audience. Opened in April this year, the hall is fairly unassuming from the outside as you pass Victoria Station and round the corner passing the dark brick façade that encloses it. Inside it is a light, modern space kitted out in neutral colours of wood and stone where rows of plush red seats stand in striking contrast. Already the hall is attracting such illustrious ensembles as Kuss Quartet to the city. Of course, as part of Chetham’s School of Music the hall also doubles as a space for students there to both get used to performing in a world class, state-of-the-art venue and, as tonight evidences since many young students are in attendance, to take in an assortment of world-class performers and ensembles. It’s an intimate venue, well suited to all kinds of classical music and music of other genres, but on tonight’s evidence it lends itself particularly well to smaller ensembles and chamber music.

Kuss Quartet was formed in 2002 by first violinist Jana Kuss and second violinist Oliver Wille with the later addition of cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan and violist William Coleman. Based in Berlin it has won numerous prizes and awards and released several albums through Sony and Onyx, all while building a diverse repertoire that includes works composed by members of the First Viennese School, the Russian Romantics and an international variety of twentieth century composers. Their album Thème russe has a particular bearing on tonight’s program due to its exploration of chamber works by Russian composers.

In fact, the quartet has been brought here as part of the hall’s Russian October series of concerts and arts events which mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Across the city right now there seem to be many musical and cultural events provoked and informed by this important point in history. Tonight they play two string quartets by Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 11, Op. 122 in F minor and String Quartet No. 9, Op. 117 in E-flat major to fulfill the Russian aspect of the evening. These come after Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 18 in D minor, programmed, one guesses, due to Shostakovich’s dedication of his quartets 11 through 14 to each member of the important Beethoven String Quartet. The 11th was dedicated to the memory of its co-founder and second violinist Vasily Shirinsky. Shirinsky being a close friend of Shostakovich who had died in August 1965, after the composer had been hospitalized in a neurological unit the previous January where he began to compose the quartet.

Between the members of the quartet there is a great amount of fluidity and fluency in their playing. During each work, sat on piano stools, they move inwards and outwards, towards and away from one another like a set of bellows. Kuss herself remains incredibly focused and puts across a rather serious, concentrated demeanour. Any eye contact is mostly instigated by Wille as he throws eager and encouraging glances around the seats, sometimes these are reciprocated, at others not at all. Cellist Hakhnazaryan seems particularly in his own world, pursing his lips during some phrases and pulling expressive faces the aspect of which vary from passage to passage. This makes an interesting contrast with Coleman who is a more casual but still obviously a studied, deliberate instrumentalist with great poise.

The program begins with Beethoven. That Beethoven was still, or had until recently been under the tutelage and influence of Haydn, is evident in the overall character of the quartet: the delightful filigrees, tightly packed ornamentations in the upper registers of the violins, the trilled perfect cadences that litter each movement, the rich and seamless interplay and repetitions between the lower and upper registers. These are stereotypically of the classical era. However, this quartet, though early Beethoven, is not simply an exercise in ornament and eighteenth-century orderliness. There are sections where the sheer brute force of Beethoven’s melodic and rhythmic ideas (ideas that would be more firmly put forward and expressed in later works) simply can’t be contained by that elegance. It’s a barely contained, but politely stated, Beethovian wildness that threatens to break out of and tear down the established structural model through force of will. The quartet understands this emergent conflict, teasing out the sweetness but also getting stuck into the depths, for example the gorgeous moment (one of many) towards the end of the second movement where all instruments are bowed heavily and in unison. The playing necessarily and easily flits between lightness and intensity.

Already at this still developmental stage Beethoven was taking the concept of the unity of voice that Haydn strove for in each instrument within the form and pushing it on. Harmonically, structurally, tonally and technically this isn’t at the levels Beethoven would achieve in the later truly groundbreaking quartets, but the idea of a shift in how this genre should work is still noticeable. Here the violins, viola and cello are not only in dialogue, conversation, with one another, but they are actually expressing themselves concurrently as well, the old order is showing the first stages of crumbling.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 comes next. What follows is an exquisite, restive and moving performance of the work. Composed in 1966 the quartet comprises of seven movements played without pauses in-between. The distinctive very opening phrase of the first movement, from which the rest really unwinds, from the first violin is played with both assurance and assertiveness. The closely following barbed glissandi are handled dynamically as the work starts to become more agitated, staccato phrases flowing through each instrument.

The quartet as a whole is both alarming and very beautiful as Shostakovich was grappling with feelings of loss, grief and a general awareness of mortality. Big chunky dissonant chords are held across the ensemble in the ‘Recitative’ movement and scurrying, tortured passages emerge in the violins as they cut loose and transition into the ‘Humoresque’. This movement devolves the work into a frenzied neurosis where a tick-tock effect melds with a pseudo-folk melody that plays off strained, barely tonal melodies high in the violin. Kuss Quartet accent that effect extremely well and show wonderful balance between the different elements in the score.

The two final movements are the longest sections in the work at around five minutes each. The previous five are all around two minutes duration. These concluding sections take the form of a grave, pensive ‘Elegy’ that again exists on that borderline between the tonal and the atonal, and a contrasting ‘Finale’ where a more reconciliatory tone is established even though the work now thematically calls back to the opening with each instrument given a turn with the initial themes and some jarring pizzicato in the two violins.

Even though Shostakovich’s music in this quartet creeps up on and skirts around the listener through its jitteriness and anxieties there is the sense of a working through the contextual issues that gave rise to the quartet’s composition. The final sustained note on the violin leaven the impression that these issues are now done with. Despite this, the ending of the ‘Finale’ is still somewhat inconspicuous and tenuous. Kuss Quartet’s playing however is not, there is ample conviction and nerve displayed throughout, so much so that there is a delay in any applause emerging from the audience as people sit and contemplate gravity of what has just been heard.

Closing out the performance is the second Shostakovich work of the evening, String Quartet No. 9. Dedicated to the composer’s third wife, Irina, and dating to 1964, two years prior to the eleventh, the ninth is notable for being one of the only pieces that Shostakovich revised. If you ever read about the work the famous story is that Shostakovich burnt the first version in his stove ‘in an attack of healthy self-criticism’ or creative crisis, depending on how you choose to look at things. The quartet is in five movements, again played without any pauses.

Strikingly different in tone and mood from the previous quartet the feel here is more upbeat, sometimes boisterous and dare we say, even fun, with its notable quotation in the ‘Allegretto’ of the galloping theme from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (William Tell Overture), a tune that Shostakovich was ever so slightly obsessed with. This is assisted by the major key which allows for a more explorative, outwardly reaching embrace as opposed to the previous work’s pure introspection. Elsewhere notable influences come from jazz and klezmer music.

The ‘Allegretto’, a vigorous Polka, marks the start of change in temperament from the opening ‘Moderato’ and ‘Adagio’ which are more liquid in nature with oscillating passages and sleek themes of burgeoning and diminishing intensity. Kuss Quartet are more than alert to this shift and the playing is lively, bouncy with Spiccato bowing and spiky, well-defined off-beat notes in the cello. They negotiate the sometimes disjointed nature of Shostakovich’s competing influences with a sure mixture of aggression and restraint.

The closing Allegro is the longest movement of the quartet and some of the finest and most intense chamber music Shostakovich ever wrote. It’s rather like a work within the work. Here the composer manages to call back to themes in the first and fourth movements, includes a staggering central fugue section and rounds the quartet off with a fierce crescendo of a coda with authoritative unison phrases. The playing here is rock solid and incorporates great feeling, each layer of the score is discernible with no single instrument intruding on or interfering with another.

Of course the other famous story associated with this quartet arises from the aforementioned jazz influence. Khruschev had attended a jazz concert organised by Shostakovich several months prior to the Ninth Quartet’s composition. The Soviet leader complained continually of nausea and stomach pain following that event and one interpretation of this aspect of the work is that Shostakovich was subversively and combatively using such influences to continue to challenge the regime and cause uneasiness amongst its ranks. No complaints anywhere tonight after this fantastic performance, it should be noted.

Simon Haworth

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