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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Quartets
Bruno MANTOVANI (b. 1974)
String Quartet No. 6 ‘Beethoveniana’ (2019) [11:59]
Kuss Quartet
rec. live 2019, Suntory Hall Blue Rose, Tokyo
RUBICON RCD1045 [8 CDs: 523:19]

This cycle of Beethoven's Complete String Quartets was recorded live, over five concerts, at the Suntory Hall, Tokyo as part of the venue's annual Chamber Music Garden 2019. Jana Kuss, first violin and co-founder of the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet, explains the logistical difficulties of organizing this event in the booklet. With obstacles regarding sound engineers, recording equipment and a label to take on the project overcome, the icing on the cake was the loan, from the Nippon Music Foundation, of Stradivari’s legendary ‘Paganini Quartet’, a set of instruments once owned by Niccolò Paganini.

The early quartets reveal Beethoven's indebtedness to Haydn and Mozart, whilst retaining his own fingerprints and beginning to find his own voice. They offer the ensemble scope for inventive fantasy and infectious buoyant rhythms. The first two quartets, in F major and G major respectively, have a Haydnesque charm in their elegance and refinement. Everything emerges naturally and intuitively. The slow movements are lyrically effusive, and the Scherzos are tightly packed.  Bold athleticism informs the opening movement of No. 5 in A major, spotlighting Jana Kuss' impressive virtuosity for much of the time. Her intonation is flawless. The lilting rhythms of the Minuetto are sensitively judged, and the contrapuntal writing in the finale is crisply articulated with drive and vitality. Its predecessor, No. 4 in C minor, couldn't be more different, with its dark, brooding first movement. One senses the tension the players generate. The same tension is ever present in the bracing syncopations of the Minuetto. Sprightly, gleeful and foot-tapping rhythms characterize the finale, dispatched with true gypsy swagger.

The middle period quartets comprise five opuses. The three that make up Op. 59 are titled 'Razumovsky', commissioned by Count Razumovsky, a patron of the arts as well as Russian Ambassador in Vienna. The first two incorporate Russian themes. Beethoven had travelled quite a way in six years since the Op. 18 set. These quartets are longer, reveal greater maturity, are noticeably more technically challenging and demonstrate a greater dramatic and psychological profile. Op.59 No. 1 is the most familiar, and that memorable opening in the Kuss' hands is nicely paced and played with flexibility and abandon. The Russian-flavored finale is a sheer delight, brimming over with thrill and excitement. Throughout this quartet the cello is wonderfully profiled; it sounds a wonderful instrument. In contrast, tension and drama is reserved for No. 2 in E minor. Those opening chords of the opener grab you by the scruff of the neck, and then the Kuss resort to almost a whisper, generating a powerful undercurrent and sense of portent. I've never heard it done better. The Op. 95 gives a taste of what is to follow in the late quartets, with its condensed and sparse textures. As its 'Serioso' title suggests, the Kuss, playing is potent and intense.

I find Beethoven's 'Late Quartets', despite their uncompromising intellectual complexity, to be some of the most deeply satisfying music I have ever encountered. Embarking on them is an adventure for both the performer and the listener. They are profound and impassioned, yet are bathed in sublime melodies. The Kuss combine drama and rhetoric with probing intensity and reflection, all the time savouring the richness of the scores. New ground is trodden and a novel sound-world forged. These artists play with interpretative insight and a feeling for architecture and structure, all clothed in impeccable musicianship. Take the elusive String Quartet No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131, written in 1826, and dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim: we are guided through all seven movements, and emerge feeling that we have been on a journey of discovery.  Maintaining structural integrity also applies to the Kuss' take on Op. 132 in A minor. Here, the five movements are performed with logical inevitability. In the Grosse Fuge, their achievement of precision is unmatched.

The Beethoven journey ends with a newly commissioned piece, here receiving its premiere, by French composer Bruno Mantovani. His String quartet no. 6 ‘Beethoveniana’ is an immensely enjoyable twelve-minute piece. It is imaginatively constructed and expertly drafted; Mantovani quotes from each of the quartets and dons them in modernity. Don't worry; you'll recognize them. I found that the work certainly focuses the mind, as you try to identify each quotation out of context.

Audience presence isn't noticeable and is registered only by the applause at the end of each CD. Suntory Hall has a very agreeable acoustic, not at all dry but with just the right amount of reverberation, conferring space and air around the players as well as depth and perspective. The overall effect is most appealing. The packaging is attractive and the sturdy card CD sleeves contain convenient tracklistings and timings, which are also found in the accompanying booklet. Philip Borg-Wheeler’s excellent, detailed annotations, offering an overview of each of the quartets, are most welcome.

This is one of the finest cycles I’ve heard and one I'll most certainly be returning to, especially over this Beethoven anniversary year.

Stephen Greenbank

Jana Kuss violin (Stradivarius 1727)
Oliver Wille violin (Stradivarius 1680)
William Coleman viola (Stradivarius 1731)
Mikayel Hakhnazaryan cello (Stradivarius 1736)


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