Monday 14th November 2016

The Van Kuijk String Quartet from Paris were in Aberdeen recently. They played in Aberdeen Salvation Army Citadel on Thursday 13th October to give the second of four concerts for the Lunchbreak Series in collaboration with BBC Radio 3. They gave a fine performance of Haydn’s String Quartet op.76, no.4, “The Sunrise”. In particular I remember their beautifully transparent and well controlled pianissimo playing. In the second part of that concert they were joined by pianist Peter Limonov in the Quintet in f minor by Brahms.

Monday’s performance for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts opened with a stunningly beautiful performance of the Quartet in e minor by Smetana. The opening movement is marked “appassionata” and that is exactly what we got from the Van Kuijk Quartet’s viola player as he introduced the opening theme. This was a theme that ran throughout the movement but it appeared in so many guises, happy, wistful or even tragic. Our quartet brought out all those moods in their playing and once again I heard the loveliest pianissimo playing from them. I enjoyed the cello’s delicate pizzicato ending to the movement. The excellent programme note told us that Smetana “was known everywhere as an enthusiastic dancer”. That came out in several guises in the second movement. Sometimes there was lusty playing suggesting outdoor country dancing and then glittering harmonies from the upper instruments conjured up an aristocratic ballroom scene.

The warm playing of the cellist opened the third movement full of seductive romance and then the finale, fast and full of intensity yet light and airy too, recalled the earlier dance movement. Suddenly the first violin played the high sustained harmonic E that represented the tinnitus from which Smetana suffered announcing his impending deafness. Actually the medical notes referred to his hearing a chord in A flat major. This changed the mood of the piece which ended once again with the most delicate pizzicato.

The Smetana Quartet came across as a dazzlingly colourful performance and so in a quite different way did the next group of short pieces. These were Six Moments Musicaux op.44 by György Kurtág. Although born in Romania he is sometimes referred to as a Hungarian composer and should really be called Kurtág György since the Hungarians put their surnames first.

Second violin player Silvain Favre-Bulle introduced these pieces and suggested the influence of Webern. However while Webern’s pieces are totally abstract, Kurtág’s are more expressionist in their impact. The Van Kuijk Quartet certainly gave us an amazingly expressive performance of all six pieces. After the razor sharp playing of the opening Invocatio, Footfalls lived up to its title. It could almost have been the background to a cartoon film of a figure trying to sneak across the screen unobserved. The Capriccio was marvellous tip-toe music while the fourth movement In Memoriam Sebök György carried the proper charge of mourning. This was followed by …rappel des oiseaux with perfectly played bird-like harmonics and then Les Adieux featuring the Quartet’s most astonishingly beautiful pianissimo playing. The sheer transparency of all these pieces made them, though unashamedly contemporary, into the most acceptable even delightful listening.

What was the real highlight of the concert? Was it the marvellous Smetana or was it the Van Kuijk’s stunningly powerful and colourful performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat op.127?

The players went sweeping into Beethoven’s opening statement, swaying with the music as they played. They delivered the opening movement with the most impressive variety of string textures. There was fiery energy but passages of amazing delicacy too.

The second movement was so rich in its variations. It was an amazing journey across so many different musical landscapes before it came to its peaceful conclusion.

The Scherzo went fast but instead of a slower trio section which we might have expected, Beethoven went faster still. The precision playing by the Van Kuijk players easily took care of that. The finale did indeed have that Haydnesque jollity which our programme note promised and the ethereal ending was there too. I don’t think I have previously heard so many of the details of Beethoven’s music given so much careful attention and then projected with so much conviction and absolute precision. The players were reacting in detail to everything their fellow musicians were doing – reading their minds as it were – and that is proper quartet playing.

Van Kuijk String Quartet Review