Refined, period sensibilities from Kuijken Quartet in Haydn and Mozart

Kuijken Quartet with members of La petite bande (Sigiswald Kuijken and Sara Kuijken – violins, Marleen Thiers – viola, Michel Boulanger – cello)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Mozart: String Quartet No 18 in A, K 464 and String Quartet No 21 in D, K 575
Haydn: String Quartet No 30 in E flat, Op 33 No 2, Hob III 38

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 July, 7:30 pm

The Kuijken Quartet is very much a family affair: second violin Sara is Sigiswald’s daughter and violist Marleen Thiers, his wife. They have devoted themselves to playing music in the ‘historically informed’ manner. While that has tended to refer mainly to music of the earlier, Baroque era, it applies also to the Galant and Classical periods, and in theory to all later periods, up to yesterday, if you insist.

It applies to two aspects of performance – the physical characteristics of the instruments, and the way they are believed to have been played in the relevant period. There is also a third aspect however, and that is the character of the performance space. Instruments using gut strings, pianos with shorter keyboards and wooden frames with less tension on the strings, were fine for more intimate venues, but larger concert halls were built as instruments were developed with bigger sounds (or perhaps it was the other way round), and the new environment encouraged composers to write larger-scale, more dramatic, louder music.

Baroque and Classical music, written mainly for small forces in small venues, was generally adapted successfully (in the ears of that audience) for the changed environment; and for more than a century, as ‘early music’ was steadily unearthed and played, sometimes in arrangements, everyone was happy. Until music historians started to adopt relativist attitudes, according virtue, even compulsion, to performance that was strictly in keeping with the playing conditions and customs, and listener expectations of the age in which music was written.

The major problem is that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and our acceptance and expectations are deeply affected by what we’ve heard, especially in our early years when the mind is so absorbent and open to everything. We are all aware of the profound impact that certain childhood performance experiences had on our response to later, different performances.

To the point.
The opening phrases of Mozart’s K 464 were extremely quiet and refined, small enough not to be able to fill the large MFC space and so was not at all the sound that an audience in the 1780s would have heard. Thus bows moved very lightly on the strings as they created a range of quiet, subtly varied dynamics rather than the very marked contrast, pp and ff, between phrases that is usual; nothing rich or opulent and suggested, in the language of piano playing perhaps, playing with no pedaling.

The Menuetto and Trio was treated in the same genteel way, though in the Trio section, there was some emphasis on the first note in the bar, and I noticed a limited amount of vibrato, mainly from the cello. The Andante crept into one’s awareness almost secretively, though in my head I could hear, memory-driven, the rather more bold performances that most of us might have been used to. But it was good to have the false feeling that I hadn’t ever heard it before, as it is a great and marvellously sophisticated variations movement which was still evident in this restrained performance, though the cello’s dancing, spiccato offering couldn’t help breaking out of the mould.

The last movement is also formidable and the players did allow themselves to become involved with the sliding, descending chromatic sequences, and as with the whole six ‘Haydn’ quartets, one was spellbound by Mozart’s mastery and the seeming endless variety that was played out and I eventually became reconciled to the hypnotic quietude that nevertheless created a spell-binding impression. Haydn’s famous remark to Mozart’s father was certainly an unavoidable response from a comparably gifted composer.

So it was wonderful to hear one of Haydn’s more quirky and entertaining quartets from his 1781 set that had inspired Mozart to write his great set of six.

It began with more of a feel of full-blooded music than the Mozart, though it’s light in spirit, often fragile and delicate. As I think was the case with the Mozart, the players took no repeats. As with Mozart’s K 464, the Scherzo movement was second, happy, indulging in subtle glissandi (more subtle than some), and every-so-slight emphases on the first-notes-in-the-bar of the first theme.

The viola and cello start the Largo movement very slowly, and the violins waited for the phrase end before joining. It’s a movement that signals Haydn’s awareness of his own genius, though there’s nothing in the other more jocular movements to suggest that he’s offering anything less than truly inspired music. And they chose that Largo to repeat as an encore at the end of the concert.

The last movement builds to the famous ‘Joke’ right from the start – you only need to have heard the piece once before for the singular little theme to take root and the subsequent games are laid out before you. They played in a sprightly manner, fast 3/8 time, and then came the several blind gags, none of which fooled this sophisticated audience into premature clapping.

For Mozart, we had the weightier quartet at the beginning, for he was writing for the Viennese sophisticates, where in the three Prussian quartets he was writing, as Bach had done forty years before as a sort of job application, and providing a cello part suitable for King Friedrich Wilhelm II himself to play. Here, I have to confess that for all my self-persuasion, I just wanted a bit more warmth and energy, more oxygen, than the Kuijkens allowed themselves. In the Andante, the cello is allowed a couple of near-solo episodes, for the king, but Menuetto and Trio offers the royal cellist more. The Andante was a movement that felt sympathetically handled by these players, as it’s intrinsically subdued, its beauties of an exquisite kind.

The Menuetto is a thoughtful piece, not lending itself to dancing, but in their handling, rather subtle and restrained which felt perfectly appropriate. It was the Trio where the king would have enjoyed a moment of melodic charm, until violin and viola take over. The cello actually leads the way in the last movement, and there’s much else that would have allowed the gathered eminences to make admiring remarks. But compared with the complex fabric of K 464, this is a more conventional piece, no less charming; but Sigiswald never allowed himself to become too animated, leading with such a small, almost hesitant tone and limiting the weight of his bow almost to the point of inaudibility. The artistry and refined musicality of these players was a constant revelation.

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