Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D.887 (1826) [52:48]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
String Quartet, Op. 3 (1909/11) [21:07]
Kuss Quartet (Jana Kuss (first violin); Oliver Wille (second violin); William Coleman (viola); Mikayel Hakhnazaryan (cello))
rec. 28-29 July, 31 July-1 August 2010, Siemens Villa, Berlin, Germany
ONYX 4066 [73:55]

This disc of Schubert and Berg marks the debut release on the Onyx label for the Berlin-based Kuss String Quartet. Founded in 1991 at the Hanns-Eisler Academy in Berlin the current line-up was formed in 2008 when cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan replaced Felix Nickel.

I appreciated the contrasting programme of two innovative string quartets separated by eighty-five years. Both Schubert and Berg were based in Vienna a city that was for many years the centre of European music-making.

Schubert’s final String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D.887 was composed in just ten days in 1826. Experiencing both financial concerns and relationship difficulties Schubert wrote this score during a challenging time. It quartet was eventually premičred in 1850 over twenty years after Schubert’s death with publication following in 1851.

Probably his least immediately appealing chamber score the G major Quartet is far less frequently recorded than its more celebrated close predecessor the Quartet in D minor Death and the Maiden’. Its massive scale represented a radical change for Schubert alongside the work’s unconventional tonality and unsettling almost aggressive character.

The Kuss are remarkable in the opening movement for their yearning almost pleading tones. This is genuine heart-on-sleeve playing; it feels most affecting. Here one senses an impressive accord between the players. Intense concentration is established in the moving Andante with the writing punctuated for a time with what seem like a series of screams. In the Mendelssohnian Scherzo the Kuss are vivacious and spring-healed. The Trio section with its Ländler melody is highly attractive. A rather obsessive Tarantella-like rhythm propels the music forward in the final movement. Schubert’s quicksilver modulations are rather unsettling conveying a curious mocking feel.

Berg’s String Quartet was written in 1909/11 as a graduation exercise and was the last of his scores composed with Schoenberg as his teacher. Premičred in 1911 the two movement quartet displays Berg’s unique personality experimenting with an atonality that strongly anticipates serial technique. Unfortunately and somewhat unjustly this work is overshadowed by the Lyric Suite. Berg composed the quartet in the midst of difficulties in his relationship with Helene Nahowski. Despite fierce opposition from her family Berg and Helene were married in 1911. It seems that he may have been inspired to compose the quartet as a musical depiction of Helene. Michael Stegemann explains in the notes that Berg’s score is based on the second violin’s principal theme.

In the first movement Langsam, right from the opening bars, the tone of Jana Kuss’s Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1776) violin sounds exceptional. Out of cloudy tranquillity the players articulate a succession of short-tempered, anguished near-venomous outbursts. Marked Mäßige Viertel the final movement is forthright, spirited and angular. Creative and starkly contrasted like an abstract artwork the Kuss paint an impressive canvas in sound. The steely beauty of Berg’s writing becomes a chilling experience with the temperament punctuated by considerable torment.
The sound quality on this Onyx disc is clear and well balanced with an interesting essay in the booklet. I thoroughly enjoyed this captivating and splendidly played release.

The Kuss have recently been in the studio recording a mouth-watering selection of Russian music. Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 will be the feature work together with a fascinating variety of miniatures for string quartet including the collaborative Variations on a Russian Theme by Scriabin, Glazunov, Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov et al; Stravinsky’s Concertino; Schnittke’s Canon in Memory of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young (arranged by Rostislav Dubinsky).

Michael Cookson

I thoroughly enjoyed this captivating and splendidly played release.