BRAHMS; SCHOENBERG String Quartets
My usual impression of Brahms’s Op 67 Quartet, that it opens mid-flow, is heightened by the Kuss Quartet and their jittery, over-caffeinated performance of the exposition. The repeat is more poised but still sounds like Brahms seen through the light of those who came after him. Each voice is strongly differentiated; more nervy vibrato, especially from the leader, discolours the theme of the Andante, the central section of which is not as ‘sweet and graceful’ as all that.
Even so, this approach works in context. The rustic Scherzo is effectively staged as a male-female dialogue on the verge of neurasthenia, the trio haunted and hesitant, as if taking place in a forest clearing halfway between the poor unfortunate in Erwartung and the drowning corpse of Wozzeck’s Marie.
Thus we are prepared, as if by a chapter in Style and Idea, for Schoenberg’s journey to the precipice of tonality and back again in his Second Quartet. From the composer-approved Kolisch Quartet onwards, ensembles generally played this music with the tonal opulence it deserves. Because the LaSalle Quartet could play Ligeti and Lutosπawski for breakfast did not mean they would eschew the full Romantic apparatus of legato and portamento when Schoenberg himself demands it, which is frequently. Only in the last decade or two have historically informed approaches to Haydn and Mozart begun to problematise Schoenberg, paradoxically making him a new and disturbing figure all over again. The composer would have seen the irony.
In this regard, the sound-body of the Kuss is fuller and healthier than recent accounts of the Schoenberg from the Diotima and Asasello quartets, tonally comparable to the Leipzig Quartet though with a narrower vibrato. They impart to the opening movements a persuasive sense of the composer wrestling with his material, struggling to bend it into Brahmsian shapes until the music pulls him where he dared not go. Soprano Mojca Erdmann is on commanding form and well placed within the body of the quartet as a fifth voice. Her arrival brings a welcome additional urgency; the most heartfelt, full-blooded playing on the disc is reserved for the coda of ‘Litanei’, as the key turns in the door to the finale’s ‘other planet’. I am still waiting for an Emerson/Fleming account after their superb disc of Berg and Wellesz (Decca, 10/15), but the Kuss Quartet’s unique coupling marks them out as an ensemble to pay attention to.