Kuss Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Haydn – Joke, Frog

String Quartets:
E-flat, Op.33/2 (The Joke); B-flat, Op.50/1; F-sharp minor, Op.50/4; D, Op.50/6 (The Frog)

Kuss Quartet [Jana Kuss & Oliver Wille (violins), William Coleman (viola) & Mikayel Hakhnazaryan (cello)]

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 16 March, 2018
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Kuss QuartetPhotograph: © MolinaVisualsThe Kuss Quartet’s rich, colourful sound suited and indeed enhanced these searching interpretations of Haydn. Frequently, the musicians’ expressive style revealed inner meanings within the pieces, a characteristic at once evident in the ‘Joke’ Quartet as each new melody was eased into gently, yet never for a moment did this subtlety impede forward impulse. Certainly every opportunity was taken to express the light-heartedness of this work and it was delightful to hear the Minuet’s Trio having maximum stress placed on the many examples of portamento implied by the score: this effect is not always heard since Haydn provided an alternative version of this section. Optimism is everywhere, the Largo sostenuto calm but sunny, and in the hilarious Finale every opportunity was taken to underline the humour of the pauses and the extraordinary, unexpected ending.

Humour lurks below the surface of the more-substantial B-flat Quartet of Opus 50; once again the players pushed eagerly forward in the Trio, stressing a dance-like element, and in the variations marked Adagio non lento Haydn’s cautionary instruction was respected and the music flowed tenderly. Each instrument has a moment in the spotlight and when the second violin was featured it was interesting to hear phrasing of the main theme that differed from the approach taken by the leader. The end of the work has joyful ideas that lead to emphatic finality; here is an example where omission of the second repeat was not only acceptable but surely advisable.

No.4 of Opus 50 starts as though it were to be in a minor key but soon it gathers into a positive major mode. This was a dramatic reading in which the powerful sound of Mikayel Hakhnazaryan’s cello became evident. Friedrich William II of Prussia, to whom Opus 50 is dedicated, was a capable cellist and possibly that is why the instrument is featured strongly. The remaining three movements were less impressive, the variations did not include all the repeats and a very sluggish Trio was unconnected with the surrounding Minuet. The brief fugal Finale failed to lighten the mood – the fugues that close several of Haydn’s Opus 20 are much more interesting.

The so-called ‘Frog’ Quartet was treated in a different manner and apart from a sturdy and stylish Minuet and Trio the Kuss Quartet considered the remaining movements almost as tone-poems, often employing surprising freedom of tempo and ignoring repeats, but this reading made no great impact apart from the vivid sounds created in the Finale where the technique of bariolage (alternate bowing of open and stopped strings) was fully exploited. This ear-catching effect lies behind the nickname since, to a contemporary commentator, it sounded like croaking.

The encore has no apparent connection with Haydn – an immensely calm elegy-like piece by Thomas Adès, ‘O Albion’ from his Arcadiana, of opulent harmony, and which also served to underline the ensemble’s beauty of tone.

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