Fifty years ago, when I first started playing string quartets, we all wanted to play like the Amadeus. Then, as new quartets came on to the scene, we came to value the new interpretations that each brought with them. Now we have heard the most well known works, like Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet, played in so many different ways that we no longer expect to be offered something totally new. And yet we were by the Kuss Quartet on the stage of the Dome Concert Hall on Sunday March 18th. They play with a delicacy and elegancy that is quite their own and yet somehow they combine it with phrasing so expressive that you listen open-mouthed. It is like a conjuring trick; how can they convey such passion while playing in such an understated way? The answer, in the “Dissonance” Quartet, was that they remained faithful to the classical spirit of Mozart’s writing. They play quietly. they seem to allow plenty of space while playing no slower than anyone else and they bring out the meaning of every note and phrase. I was left with the image of a well-pruned apple tree. For those who are not gardeners, the principle of apple tree pruning is that you thin out the branches until you can stand under it and throw your hat up through the middle. That image captures something of the light and clarity that the Kuss’ way of playing lets into the music. All four players do it, but outstanding is the leader Jana Kuss, who has a sweetness of tone and lightness of touch to make you weep.
After the Mozart came a brilliant bit of programming: the Three Pieces for String Quartet of Stravinsky, one angular, one humorous and one tender. The whole thing only lasted 7 minutes but they were worthwhile in their own right and calmed us down after the excitement of the Mozart.
Then Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet: would they have the power and the lyricism to sustain this work of high Romanticism? They did, and they did it with the same sweetness and expressiveness that is clearly their style. They showed that power doesn’t require volume or harshness; it just needs intensity. The muted andante cantabile is said to have made Tolstoy weep when he heard it and you could see why.
Finally, Chris Darwin’s programme notes were as clear and informative as they have been throughout the season. Who else would have been able to show so clearly how the opening four bars of the Mozart provide source material for the whole quartet; or how the Stravinsky and the “Ministry of Silly Walks” are connected through the music hall performer “Little Tich”?