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(Almost) A Family Affair - The Kuijken String Quartet

(Almost) A Family Affair - The Kuijken String Quartet Play Haydn & Mozart

Chamber Music New Zealand has scored another coup with the Kuijken String Quartet's current tour of New Zealand. As the co-founder of both La Petite Bande in 1972 and the Kuijken String Quartet in 1986, Sigiswald Kuijken is internationally recognized for his contribution to establishing historical performance practice and influencing generations of period instrument players.

Born near Brussels in 1944, Kuijken studied violin at the Conservatories of Bruges and Brussels, before completing his studies with Maurice Raskin in 1964. Under the influence of his elder brother Wieland, he became familiar with 17th and 18th century performing techniques and conventions of interpretation. In 1969 he introduced the authentic Baroque style of playing violin in which the instrument is not held under the chin, but merely rests against the neck. This technique had a decisive influence on the approach to playing violin music and has been adopted by many musicians since the early 1970s. From 1964 to 1972 Kuijken was a member of the Alarius-Ensemble of Brussels, which performed across Europe and the US. As a member of the Musiques Nouvelles Ensemble, he has also performed 20th century repertory and avant-garde music, from Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire to Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maître. Kuijken's fascinating book Bleib bei uns, Bach (after the Cantata No. 6) has been described as a work "not for musicologists, but for happiness," in which he describes his first encounter with Bach as a child: “I feel as if I never had to make a choice, it was always clear. In both families of my parents there were lots of amateur musicians. The genes did their work – of six brothers, three went into music."

Kuijken's preference for period instruments (either originals or copies of instruments from the time the composers were writing) is based on sound historical and musicological principles: “The 18th century violin was different from our modern violin not so much in the overall shape and dimension of the body (this was already quite like what we see today), but mainly by the material used to make the strings. The upper three strings were pure gut and the lowest string (the thickest) was silver-wound gut. This traditional material still defines the standard of violin tone and you might find players today praising the tone of a new, synthetic string by saying it sounds 'as warm as a gut string.' The bridge is a different shape and often the position of the neck is not quite so angled back as that of a modern violin. Inside the instrument the bass bar [an internal brace running the length of the violin’s body] does not exert as much force, which results in less string tension on the bridge. The sound that is created tends to be a more free and flexible, but also a slightly smaller sound than that of modern instruments. There was also a great variety in the shape and weight of the bows used in Mozart and Haydn’s time; in general, the bows had less hair and the tip of the bow was lighter.”

Kuijken's greatest impact has been on lowering the accepted pitch of string instruments, which has gradually become higher over the centuries, with most contemporary musicians playing at around A=440 hz (440 refers to the vibrations per second and the “A” is the A above middle C on the piano). The Kuijken Quartet’s classical instruments, however, are tuned to A=430 hz: “The 430 pitch is mainly used today for historical performances of classical music - although in Classical times it was quite usual for each local area to choose their own preferred pitch. Today due to globalisation, pitch is more standardised for practical reasons. But with this globalisation we have lost a lot of local colour as well. In 18th century Vienna, Paris or London, musicians in the different cities did not even necessarily play at the same pitch in the same years, and sometimes more than one pitch would be used within one city (for instance in Paris: at the Opera, the traditional pitch was much lower than for other instrumental concerts in town). The 430 pitch would be too high for one city and too low for another. It is impossible to know exactly what was the 'right' pitch for Haydn or Mozart’s string quartets as they would be played differently in the various cities all over Europe! Lower pitch generally gives a warmer ensemble sound - but if you go too low, you will lack the necessary brilliancy perhaps. Too high pitch and it will result in a tense and 'screaming' sound. There is no absolute truth.”

Refreshingly, as befits an exponent of early instruments, Kuijken does not own a cellphone - “I’m not against the present, and I’m not a nostalgic person. It’s just that everything feels so hectic these days. Of course there are times when I have to be available, and I am. But it’s a pity if it’s all the time. Things get too hectic and the sense of calm gets lost.”

Marleen Thiers was born in 1945 and studied with Arthur Grumiaux and Maurice Raskin at the Conservatory of Brussels. Like her husband Sigiswald, she immediately showed a penchant for period instruments and performance practice. She plays first viola in La Petite Bande and is a co-founder and viola player with the Kuijken Quartet. Their daughter Sara Kuijken was born in 1968 and studied viola at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, where she obtained first prize in 1989 and the Higher Certificate magna cum laude in 1992. She continued her studies at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam, graduating with a degree as a performing musician in 1995. After participating in La Petite Bande with her anther and uncle, she co-founded the Oxalys chamber music ensemble.

For many years, her uncle Wieland Kuijken played with the Quartet, as well as contributing the viola da gamba to the Alarius-Ensemble and the Baroque cello to the Musiques Nouvelles Ensemble, which performed avant-garde music throughout Europe until the late 70s. In 1972, he co-founded La Petite Bande with his brother and has recorded numerous works of chamber music with other well-known Baroque specialists such as Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Bruggen, and Alfred Deller. One of the most sought-after Early Music performers of his generation, he spent many years teaching masterclasses in Europe, the US, and Japan, and is a regular jury member of international competitions. The now-elderly Wieland, however, was recently replaced by the equally excellent cellist Michel Boulanger.

Joseph Haydn

At Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre the Kuijken String Quartet played Mozart's String Quartets in A and D and Haydn's mercurial Quartet in E-flat Major, commonly known as 'The Joke.'

While a clause in Haydn's original contract stipulated that all his compositions belonged to his long-time employer Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy, he negotiated a new contract in 1779 that allowed him to accept external commissions. Written during the summer and autumn of 1781 and printed by the Viennese publisher Artaria, The Op. 33 String Quartets were some of his first works under this new arrangement. In a letter to Artaria, Haydn boasted about his set of six new quartets, saying they are “a new and entirely special kind.” Since then they have earned several nicknames, the most common of which is the 'Russian' Quartets, because Haydn dedicated them to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia and most were premiered on Christmas Day, 1781, at the Viennese apartment of the Duke's wife, the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna.

The Quartet in E-flat Major has four movements: Allegro moderato; Scherzo: Allegro; Largo in B-flat major; and Presto. The final movement implements a lighter character, originating from Haydn’s first shift from the minuet to the Scherzo. It also portrays some new features in Haydn's compositions, including the rondo form, which was becoming increasingly popular around this time. Although the violin takes the main share of melodic material in the Allegro moderato, Haydn spread an equality of riches across the other parts, making every voice essential. Rustic vigour and courtly refinement jostle throughout a Scherzo, which is replete with opportunities for humorous imitation - the violins enjoy an expressive conversation in the Trio, supported by punctuating chords, and to remove even one note would tear apart the Quartet's discursive fabric. The purity of the Largo recalls Haydn's remarks in Griesinger's biography: "His theoretical raisonnements were very simple: a piece of music should have a flowing melody, coherent ideas, no superfluous ornaments, nothing overdone … How to satisfy these requirements? That, he confessed … simply depends on natural talent and on the inspiration of inborn genius."

The final Presto employs long pedal notes in the cello part to ground the first violin's pyrotechnics and provoke tension with the inner parts. A sequence of intriguing tonalities, including A-flat Major and its relative F Minor, lead the audience on a beguiling journey towards the final 'joke.' The rondo form of the final movement remains true to its definition by always returning to the tonic in the refrain, resulting in an ABACA form. Chronologically, the first refrain (A) begins in E flat major and repeats each section, (a) and (ba), forming (aababa.) In the first episode (B) begins in A flat major, moves to F minor, and finally resolves to E flat major at the beginning of the second refrain (A), which is almost an exact repetition of the first refrain (aba), the only change being the omission of the repeats. The second refrain is not only the arrival point of the tonic, but also the final point of modulation for the remainder of the piece, which then progresses to new thematic material in the second episode (C) - but, again, does not modulate to a new key. After the new material, the final refrain should be considered A' due to the material simply being condensed. The end is quite unique, changing the tempo to an adagio, then, in the conclusion of the piece, moving to (a’). Here Haydn teases the audience with a grand pause that makes us wonder if the piece is over. This is followed by a sudden and surpirising forte sixteenth note in the beginning of the adagio, after which the first violin plays the A theme of the opening phrase with rests interrupting the music every two bars. The rests get progressively longer, giving the impression that the piece is over many times in a row.

Haydn used this coda not only to confuse audiences about when to applaud, but also amateur musicians who were too "beat-driven," by making fun of what he considered a redundant rondo form. The entire movement is filled with similar witty strategies, such as the large dominant preparation over a pedal base in the B section that merely resolves to a small recapitulation of the opening theme. This again toys with the audience's expectations. Some may say that the only joke, besides the obvious ending, is on the people trying to find “the new and special way,” while other critics have argued that the adagio is a reminder of things their due past, hinting that it is time to advance music to a new level. This dynamic conspiracy between composer and musicians epitomizes the 'natural, pure, and continual exaltation' so characteristic of Haydn's music. A sense of quirky humour pervades the entire Quartet and contemporary audiences were apparently so delighted by such devices they erupted in gales of laughter, and it is these carefully calculated divertissements that have earned the piece its title.

After the publication of Haydn's Op. 33, Mozart began composing six quartets dedicated to him, which he referred to as "il frutto di una lungha a laboriosa fatica." Three of the quartets, including the A-Major, received a private performance with Haydn himself present in January 1785, and occasioned his remark to Leopold Mozart about his brother's genius, concluding that "he has … the greatest possible knowledge of the science of composition."

The autograph score of his A-Major Quartet in particular shows evidence of extensive redrafting. Throughout the opening Allegro, rapid transitions between genial melodies and roaring drama remind us that the spectre of Figaro looms large over almost all of Mozart's music. Operatic impulses infuse the entire score, with the 'vocal' and accompanying roles continuing to move between instruments in the both the Menuetto and Trio. The richness of the Andante theme and variations recall Karl von Dittendorff's comment that "no sooner is one inclined to reflect upon the beautiful integration than another appears, even more splendid, which drives away the first." Similarly, the Allegro finale merges complex, intricate counterpoint with outbursts of bucolic energy and wryly charming interjections. Contemporary reactions to Mozart's 'Haydn' quartets were mixed, however. In 1789, the Magazin der Musik declared they did "not in general please quite as much" as those by others, such as leopold Koz. Mozart had "a decided leaning towards the difficult and the unusual. But then, what great and elevated ideas he has too, testifying to a bold spirit."

Tragically, this "bold spirit" only had two years left. In April 1789, Mozart was so deeply in debt that he embarked on a tour of German cities to pay off his creditors. He arrived in Potsdam at the end of the month and gained an audience with Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia, who agreed to commission a set of six new string quartets. Mozart only managed to complete three of them, however, before having to sell them to Artaria - "I have now been forced to give away my quartets (that exhausting labour) for a mere song, simply in order to have cash on hand." Shortly after his death in 1791, notice of his 'Prusssian' Quartets appeared in the Wiener Zeitung - "From Artaria … are to be had three entirely new concertante quartets … by Hr. Kapellmeister Mozart … they flowed from the pen of this so great musical genius not long before his death, and they display all that musical interest in respect of Art, Beauty, and Taste, which must awaken pleasure and admiration not only in the amateur but the true connoisseur also."

Mozart's exhaustion derived mainly from the completing the adjustments he found necessary in order to highlight Frederick Wilhelm's abilities as a cellist. The D Major Quartet achieves additional structural cohesion through Mozart's connection of the first and last movements with a ghostly thematic reappearance. The Andante highlights exquisite instrumental exchanges, with the cello enjoying an eloquent aria within a densely entwined texture that allows the instrument to sing without ever sounded forced. The Minuet and Trio also provide further opportunities for the cellist to shine. The robust rondo of the Allegretto finale begins with a dialogue between cello and viola, in which the latter sometime plays in a lower register then the former. Again, these gestures are thoroughly operatic, with each instrument's individual character being clearly defined.

Throughout all three pieces, the Kuijken String Quartet displayed a great sense of decorum and restraint, weaving a fine filigree web of coruscating, sinuous lines, intricate as the delicate embroidery on Belgian lace, without ever sounding cold or etiolated. Their modest and self-effacing technique belied an elegance of approach, subsumed in a spirit of mutually supportive and intuitive virtuosity. Unassuming and without a trace of individual histrionics, they clearly demonstrated why they are considered one of the finest string quartets currently working the professional circuit.

Sigiswald Kuijken will also perform three solo works by JS Bach at St Mary of the Angels on Tuesday, 18 July.

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