REVIEW: The Kuss String Quartet – Coffee Concert at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Sunday March 18

AN ARMENIAN who has been with them only four years seems to be the unassuming influence behind The Kuss Quartet’s remarkable and individual musical and stage presence. Mikayel Hakhnazaryan is different. He is not a habitually forceful player but differs from other string quartet cellists in combining strength with a rarified subtlety and a delicacy of touch.

This at the base of their sound gives the quartet a more thought-provoking type of interpretative penetration and Hakhnazaryan’s playing is an absorbing and enriching complement to leader Jana Kuss. Her sound on first violin is wonderfully rounded, sensitive and controlled, while responsive not only as an initiator but collectively with Oliver Wille’s second fiddle and William Coleman’s viola to what Hakhnazaryan shapes not only below them, but also among and above them when his often exquisite cantabile comes through.

East Berliners, Kuss and Wille, have played together since 14-year-olds. Coleman has been a member for the past 10 of the Kuss Quartet’s 20 years. Hakhnazaryan, a devotee in particular of fellow cellist Steven Isserlis, told me how, after meeting and playing with the others in Cornwall at the twice-annual April Master Classes and September Festival at Prussian Cove, near Land’s End, he was invited to join.

It is proving an inspired invitation because the Kuss are gaining ever high praise, not least two days before this appearance, when Geoffrey Norris looked at their new CD, Thème Russe, in The Telegraph Review. Norris wrote of their panache being encapsulated in their Tchaikowsky 1st String quartet – which they played on Sunday. A critic in Houston,Texas,heard “a purity of sound almost heavenly”.

I find panache more in their programming and their effortless readiness to transit the ever more many-sided String Quartet repertoire.

This concert began with a ravishingly explorative account of Mozart’s masterly mysterious “Dissonance” Quartet and moved on to the Tchaikowsky after first playing Stravinsky’s tiny but alarming and adventurously imaginative Three Pieces, which in 1914 followed his ground-breaking Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring. More mystery therefore followed that from Mozart with these rarely heard and fascinatingly disparate items, created with all the entertaining daring of the Ballet Russes’ most arresting musical asset.

After the Tchaikowsky provided a romantic and rousing close, the Kuss encored with two of the arrangements by Borodin of Tchaikowsky’s piano Album For Children — the viciously vivacious and taut Baba Yaga, and the charming Sweet Dreams. Many of us will have played at least the latter in our earlier-grade piano lessons.

The Kuss sit with their two violins placed in stereo, as do certain orchestras, bringing greater transparency of sound and line, and Jana Kuss sits next to her violist to induce additional benefits of ensemble. The sum of the whole was set out before us from the start when Mozart’s sublime part writing was rendered palpable in all its miniaturised glory.

The return of The Kuss Quartet will be relished.

The Coffee Concert Series of chamber music will return next season with not six but seven events.

A launch concert on October 7 at The Dome (11am) will kick it off, featuring The Castalian Quartet who are protégées of quartet leader and teacher Levon Chilingirian, who is president of Strings Attached.

It is Strings Attached, the chamber music society for Brighton & Hove, who have worked with Brighton Dome to make this current season such a success in its first year since switching from St Nicholas Church after having left Hove’s Old Market.

The artistes are yet to be announced but the other dates for next season are the Sundays of October 28 (2012), November 18, December 16, January 20 (2013), February 17 and March 10; all at 11am.

Richard Amey

www.stringsattachedmusic.org.uk