Kuss Quartet at Tonhalle in Zurich

May 13 2018

On my first night in Zurich for a week-long business trip, I was lucky to take in a chamber music concert at the Tonhalle Maag, the modern-looking temporary home for Zurich classical concerts. The Kuss Quartet played with soprano Mojca Erdmann a couple of Beethoven quartets mixed with more contemporary-sounding music.

First, I need to comment on Tonhalle Maag, the venue. When my Uber driver dropped me off, I thought I was in the wrong place. I walked around the block in what seemed a very industrial area, and finally realized that the venue is actually a renovated former warehouse.

This entrance is definitely not obvious

Inside is just as interesting - the hallways are mostly not renovated, so it very much doesn’t feel like your usual 19th century-era opera hall. The auditorium is also unique - it’s completely made from wood, and the wood is exposed all the way around.

Floor boards for as far as the eye can see

Despite all this book cover stuff, the hall itself is actually very comfortable to sit in, and the acoustics are amazing! Very warm sound throughout, and it carries well.

The program can be split into two genres. The two pieces that started and concluded the concert (Kirchner’s Six Songs from Poems by Heinrich Heine and Mendelssohn’s Eight Songs based on poems by Heinrich Heine) included the singer, and these pieces all included some modern additions by Aribert Reimann, who added “bridging music” in the form of bagatelles and interludes. Sandwiched in between were two Beethoven string quartets, Op. 59 No. 3 and Op. 135.

The two song cycles were quite interesting as they both alternated between rich, warm, tonal sections and modern, atonal sections. The Mendelssohn song cycle included the famous “On Wings of Song”, which I’ve heard hundreds of times in violin transcriptions, but tonight was the first time I actually heard it in close to its original setting with an actual singer. It was wonderful to hear it live.

The quartet itself played with some of the richest, warmest sound I’ve ever heard. It’s impossible for me to say whether this was the hall or the group specifically, but I suspect it’s both. I did notice the quartet, as a group, tended to play long, more sustained notes on the string, as opposed to more staccato or off the string notes. That probably contributed to the warmth of sound.

The highlight of the quartet by far is the first violinist, Jana Kuss, who I guess is the titular founding member of the quartet. She played with amazing confidence and poise throughout, and it was also her warmth of sound that I noticed the most often (although William Coleman, the violist, also stood out several times).

There was some disappointing technical stuff, that I’m certainly not used to seeing. In the very difficult last movement of Op. 59 No. 3 (the fast and difficult round), the violist and second violinist were quite a bit off from each other when it was just the two of them in the beginning, and they had to reset the beat almost like an amateur quartet would do. And in the Op. 135, there was an entire part that was missed for a few measures (I suspect from the second violin, but I’m not certain). Anyway, it was obvious in the music that it was missed, and the quartet members also shot each other panicked looks when it happened.

Op. 135 also contains the gorgeous slow third movement, which is directly quoted by Mahler to start off the last movement of his Symphony No. 3. The Kuss Quartet, with their soft, velvety sound, were a perfect match for that movement.

All five of the musicians after the first piece

The concert ended with a nice and simple Schumann song, but it was announced in German, so I did not catch which of Schumann’s lieder it was specifically.

Topics: MusicMusic:ConcertsMusic:Chamber Music

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