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Ionarts-at-Large: Kissed by Kurtág in the Bavarian Countryside

Asked on short notice whether I might like to attend a concert with Miklós Perényi and the Kuss Quartet I agreed well before knowing where on earth—or in Bavaria—the little town of Iffeldorf is. It turns out to be a village of about 2500 residents, located at the picturesque sounding Easter Lakes, a surprisingly convenient 48 train-ride minutes south of Munich. The “Easter Lakes”, frankly, are glorified swampy ponds; a dozen or more pretty watery extensions of the southern shore of Lake Starnberg. But the view is astonishing; just walking from the train station to the restaurant-slash-hotel-slash-community center-slash-concert hall-slash-elementary school gymnasium you get incredible views of the lush green meadows right in front of the Alpine mountainside, with shady slopes still covered by vast fields of snow in late April. Tyrol is just behind them.

The smell of countryside just after it rained, with a thunderstorm lurking in the near distance, is a childhood memory that is more deeply ingrained in my memory than any visual or aural recollection, and en route to Schubert it only seems right to get a hearty whiff of cow, as you pass an ‘inner city’ barn. Surely Schubert wouldn’t have had it any other way. I hadn’t heard a note of music, and already the trip was worth being taken. Fortunately, the Kuss Quartet only added to the smell of cows and the mountain vista.

available at Amazon
Schubert & Berg, String Quartets D887 / op.3,
Kuss Quartet

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas & Variations,
Schiff / Perényi

Inside the most luxurious, all-wood elementary school gymnasium (~300 students) I’ve ever seen—replete with panoramic window and view unto the little lakes—waited a sell-out crowd for the Berlin-based quartet. A crowd that was larger and better behaved than you could have ever gotten for such an event in alleged ‘music town’ of Munich. They responded very well to Mozart, not surprisingly. Especially because the Kuss Quartet (Jana Kuss and Oliver Wille – violins, William Coleman – viola, Mikayel Hakhnazaryan – cello) took to the first of Mozart’s “Prussian Quartet” (K.575) with great panache and stride. The late quartets are not as successful as Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets”, but in such beautiful and quadruply individual sound, with unapologetic substance and heft, it was an immediate chamber music tonic, desperately needed given that I haven’t had a dose of the top-notch chamber music offerings that can be found in Washington.

The Kuss Quartet’s sound makes no pretense of pandering to historical performance practice, they have a general sound that one might expect in Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms… and in the resonance of this hall it worked perfectly for late Mozart.

Then, most happily, György Kurtág made a surprise-appearance in Iffeldorf in form of his String Quartet op.28. “Don’t worry, it only lasts ten minutes” was the announcer’s calming message to the hall of Kurtág-neophytes; and those who did not quite take to Kurtág’s sparse and delicate sound bared it with gallant, abstract appreciation. (“Oh, this modern piece, I don’t know… I am sure it must be very difficult to play.”) It probably is… the way it assembles itself slowly, gently, from individual notes and sounds… to eventually come into form and shape over a warm, mellow cello pizzicato. After at a slightly increased level of intensity, it starts that process again. Titled “Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervánszky”, it is his second (or third, depending on whether you count the “12 Microludes – Hommage a András Mihály”) quartet and works off Anton Webern in its 10 short movements. A felt, fragile, and sympathetic tribute in its pixilated or pointillist (more Seurat than Stockhausen) way.

Miklós Perényi, his hair disheveled, his bow tie crooked, and his suit baggy, looks like a shy turtle on stage; a wizard-turtle, though—as becomes clear as soon as he touches his instrument and provides the silkiest imaginable foundation for the Schubert String Quintet. Perényi is a quintessential musician’s musician who makes no concessions to marketability or PR hounds. Not surprisingly his discography is small and badly maintained. A few discs float about on low quality imprints like Laserlight... and amid that a few highlights: Wigmore Hall recently released a recital of his on CD, and there is a DVD of his Bach Suites available from Hungaroton. Most of the notable stuff comes from András Schiff dragging him along (superb Beethoven!) or the case of György Kurtág being taken up by ECM or Hungaroton.

The Quintet is part of the canon of the almost unfathomably great late Schubert works (harder to fathom, still, when I remind myself that at my age Schubert was dead and in an advanced state of decomposition). Throughout the Schubert, more lovely than searing, there were recurring moments consolation and calm that had a strangely earthbound, odd—neither bad nor expected—quality about it. The quartet’s first violin wasn’t always part of the homogeneity that makes the ensemble, but then also adds to what would otherwise be a potentially bland blend, with its ever-reticent violist and a second fiddle that soft-pedaled after every—albeit rarely occurring—accidentally daring phrase. Miklós Perényi, throughout this, stayed in the background and seemed to enjoy the music-making next to the quartet’s calm cellist, the quartet’s clandestine core: himself neither dominant nor diffident, but always present.