Quatuor Van Kuijk
Debussy / Webern / Mendelssohn
Lugano, LAC / Teatrostudio, 2018-04-22
The Quatuor Van Kuijk formed itself in 2012. I assumed the name of its first violinist, Nicolas Van Kuijk. The quartet studied with notable masters such as members of the Ysaÿe Quartet (1984 – 2014), the Alban Berg Quartet (1970 – 2008), the Artemis Quartet (*1989), and the Hagen Quartett (*1981). Three years after their foundation, the ensemble made a first break-through, when it won the first prize at the 2015 International Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, along with the prizes for the best Beethoven and the best Haydn performance. For further details see their Web biography or their page on Wikipedia. They are currently on an extensive concert tour throughout Europe and the USA. The four members of the ensemble are
- Nicolas Van Kuijk, violin
- Sylvain Favre-Bulle, violin
- Emmanuel François, viola
- François Robin, cello
This concert in the Teatrostudio within the LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura) in Lugano must have been one of the most intimate events on their current tour. The venue as such is small already (there were chairs for 60 people in the audience). Plus, the concert was not sold out: on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, only 44 people attended the concert. Nevertheless, the young, ambitious ensemble presented a challenging program, with works by Claude Debussy, Anton Webern, and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
As for the arrangement on the podium: on stage, most string quartets form a semi-circle, if not even a more or less closed circle. From the point-of-view of ensemble playing, of maintaining permanent contact during performances, this definitely makes sense. Moreover, such close contact may be vital for achieving a coherent, compelling performance.
However, there is a disadvantage with such a closed arrangement: almost unavoidably, it also builds an emotional barrier between the audience and the musicians. In other words: it may lock out the listener, forcing audience members into the position of an external / outside observer. This may lead to “passive listening”, preventing the listener from mentally engaging in a performance.
Nothing like a closed arrangement in this concert, with the Quatuor Van Kuijk! Quite to the contrary: the ensemble played in a broad, open formation, with the two musicians in the middle, Sylvain Favre-Bulle (violin 2) and Emmanuel François (viola) were facing the audience directly. Even François Robin at the cello showed more than just his profile.
The one, partial exception to this was Nicolas Van Kuijk at the first violin: he was mostly oriented towards his colleagues and his sheet music. This does not imply that he was actively and visibly controlling the performance, though. Rather, as a listener, one had the impression of four equivalent partners who were communicating openly and vividly among themselves, despite the very “open” arrangement. The most interactive, communicative personalities seemed to be Sylvain Favre-Bulle and the cellist, François Robin, both playing with obvious joy, fun, pleasure and engagement.
Even though the quartet was openly facing the audience, the communication / interaction during the performance was of course within the ensemble almost exclusively. The inclusion of the audience was of more “virtual”, implicit nature.
Two things spoke for the serious, thorough preparation, and for the common experience of the four musicians, their knowledge of the concert repertoire. For one, most of them were occasionally playing by heart (Nicolas Van Kuijk seemed focused on the sheet music, but I could not check where he was looking while playing). More importantly, despite the spatial distances, the four musicians showed no weaknesses in coordination. Even in the most virtuosic segments, or in pieces that are extremely challenging in the coordination, such as Anton Webern’s five pieces, the ensemble remained absolutely firm, didn’t show the slightest insecurity.
Originally, Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) planned to write two string quartets. However, only one materialized in the end: the String Quartet in G minor, op.10, L.85, which he completed in 1893. The composition premiered in the same year in Paris, with mixed reactions from the audience. The four movements are
- Animé et très décidé (4/4, 68=½) – Très animé (6/4, 138=½)
- Assez vif et bien rythmé (6/8, 112=3/8)
- Andantino, doucement expressif (6/8, 80=♪) – Un peu plus vite (3/8, 88=♪) – 1er Mouvement
- Très modéré (4/4, 58=♩) – En animant peu à peu (12/8, 108=♩) – Très mouvementé et avec passion (2/2, 132=½) – Très animé (2/2, 138=½)
I. Animé et très décidé — Très animé
A first encounter with the sound (or the sound philosophy) of this ensemble. In this first movement, I noted their well-rounded, warm, rather mellow tone and articulation: this appeared to take precedence over ultimate transparency and clarity in small note values (most notable the semiquaver triplets). The tone was romantic and expressive, the build-up waves harmonious. Excellent: the fine agogic play, the organic, “natural” changes in tempo in the rubato. But tone and articulation weren’t mellow throughout: in fff segments, the quartet could well expand the volume, show grip and “bite” in the articulation. The small venue even amplified, enhanced the expressive aspects in their playing.
The one quibble I had here was in occasional Nachdrücken, most notable in the first violin—more on that in my comments on the Mendelssohn quartet.
II. Assez vif et bien rythmé
Occasionally, the pizzicato sections in the second movement reminded me of the Scherzo in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 (made me wonder whether this similarity was intended or not!). The music here is rhythmically complex, manifold—and at the same time a soundscape rich in colors. The performance was excellent, virtuosic, rhythmically firm, enthralling up to the pizzicato ending, all ppp.
Impressive in this movement: the gripping, expressive sonority of the leading melody voice, first the viola, later also the second violin and the cello.
III. Andantino, doucement expressif – Un peu plus vite – 1er Mouvement
The mutes made the second violin and the viola sound even warmer, darker. Excellent how the musicians applied agogics, harmoniously followed Debussy’s rubato. I also noted the excellent sound balance, and the careful, diligent dynamics in this movement. It’s a movement full of expression, pensiveness, contemplation and re-emerging memories, perhaps? In this interpretation, The music was at the same time full of expectation, and the quartet never dropped the tension: excellent! OK, there also was the occasional Nachdrücken…
It was fascinating to see how the musicians listened carefully, constantly kept an eye on each other’s playing. In doing so, they only occasionally seemed to check the sheet music, often playing by heart.
IV. Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion – Très animé
The last movement covers a very large scope in expression. The beginning is pensive, hesitant (following up on the slow movement), followed by powerful emotional eruptions. In a highly expressive segment, the music appears to be winding in pain, trying to free itself from restraints—up to a tremolo-laden climax, like a stormy wind. This music highlighted the very well-tuned articulation and sonority of the instruments—fascinating, very impressive and compelling playing, indeed!
Webern: Five Movements for string quartet, op.5
For five years, Anton Webern (1883 – 1945) had studied with Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951). After his graduation, he took a number of minor positions as conductor, but he wasn’t really happy with his artistic life. However, it is in those years that he started developing his own, personal, atonal stile in composing, with which he soon overtook his teacher, Schönberg. Among the first compositions in this new style were his Five Movements for string quartet, op.5, which he completed in 1909. These five movements are mostly short, between 50 seconds (Satz 3) and 4 minutes (Satz 5).
I have briefly mentioned a CD recording of these pieces (not with this ensemble, though) in an earlier post, on 2012-11-01.
Certainly from a purely technical point-of-view, these five short pieces were the most demanding part of the concert. They require extreme dynamics (from fff down to pppp), frequent changes in tempo, blazingly fast transitions of short and shortest motifs (with very short note values, too) from one voice to another. All this while seemingly often lacking a lasting regular pace! And there’s the intonation—as challenging as it can be!
Notes on the movements:
- Engaged playing, focused, concentrated, alert, musically convincing, through the expansive dynamics
- The intonation wasn’t always perfect, e.g., in the width of lead intervals. To some degree, the latter is subjective, i.e., left to the judgement of the artist. In any case, the deviations were hardly noticeable, maybe in even the area of “emotional tuning”. My remark mostly stems from tiniest corrections on some recurring notes. A famous violinist once said: “there is no such thing as clean intonation on the violin—it’s all a matter of instantaneous correction.”
- Vivid, alert, accurate / precise. My only, minor quibble: in the second half, the first violin is melodic (for once in this music)—here, the vibrato was rather strong, to the point where it started affecting the intonation.
- Played with mutes—tremolo and flageolets creating an eerie sound. This may be just me: to my taste, the intonation in the first violin could occasionally have been a tad sharper…
- Calm, lamenting motifs in an eerily restrained tremolo soundscape, above the dark sound of the cello. The music appears to sleep: isn’t that subtle, slow snoring in the bass?
An inadvertent listener may see this music as being technical, analytical. In the interpretation by the Quatuor Van Kuijk, however, I rather perceived it as musical, emotionally and technically engaged: congrats!
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.4 in E minor, op.44/2
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) composed his String Quartet No.4 in E minor, op.44/2 in 1837. This is the middle one (though chronologically the first) of the three quartets op.44. Only one more, complete quartet—op.80, F minor—was to follow in 1847, shortly before the composer died. Also this quartet op.44/2 has four movements:
- Allegro assai appassionato (4/4, ½=88)
- Scherzo: Allegro di molto (3/4, 3/4=72)
- Andante (4/4, ♩=60)
- Presto agitato (3/4, 3/4=72)
I. Allegro assai appassionato
I wasn’t entirely happy with the Mendelssohn quartet. My primary objections concern the rather strong vibrato, the frequent use of portamento—but mostly the tendency to use Nachdrücken, especially in the first violin. Nachdrücken is the unwanted swelling of a tone, caused by the musicians accelerating the bow towards the end of a note, in order to reach the end (and that again, to have the full bow available for the next tone(s)). The longer the bow, the more likely Nachdrücken will occur; with modern Tourte bows, it can be quite notorious, with the shorter, classical and baroque bows, it is far less likely to occur.
In this first movement, Nachdrücken was a particularly sticky issue with the first violin, as it made the tones swell in synchrony with the syncopes and shifted notes in the accompaniment (the middle voices). This not only defeated the effect of syncopes and shifted rhythms, but it also caused the listener to get confused about the rhythmic structure / texture. These articulation issues also made the melody lines feel overblown, emotionally overloaded. Luckily, this did not affect the entire movement: there was no chance for Nachdrücken to occur in those restlessly busy segments that are so typical for Mendelssohn.
On the other hand, the phrasing, the tension arches were excellent in this performance, which certainly often was enthralling, full of drive and momentum.
II. Scherzo: Allegro di molto
Brilliant, musical, precise, very virtuosic in the fast spiccato playing (no chance for excessive vibrato or Nachdrücken!): the movement felt like a short thunderstorm passing by!
Sadly, in the slow movement, an excess in vibrato and portamento (and again some Nachdrücken) defeated the simplicity, the natural Lied character of the melody line: this really is (or should be) a Lied ohne Worte (song without words), not an elaborate art song.
IV. Presto agitato
The final movement compensated for past shortcomings: fast, virtuosic, vivid, alert, with perfect, seamless passing of motifs between the voices, all voices being equal in their weight—enthralling!
Overall Rating: ★★★
Encore — Ravel: IV, Vif et agité from the String Quartet in F major, M.35
The Quatuor Van Kuijk has just released a CD with Debussy’s String Quartet op.10, Ravel’s String Quartet, and the Chanson Perpétuelle, op.37 by Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899). So, the artists’ choice of encore was natural & logical—music from their “home turf”: returning to France for the encore “closed the program circle”.
The encore was a movement from the String Quartet in F major, M.35 by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). Ravel completed his only contribution to the genre in April 1903. The Quatuor Van Kuijk played the fourth and last movement, Vif et agité.
Expectedly, the program ended with a virtuosic piece: brilliant, resolute, with whirring tremoli and dynamic blasts that reminded me of the blowing of the Mistral: excellent!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.