Kuijken Quartet

8 July 2017, MTG, Napier
Mozart String Quartet No 18 in A K.464, Haydn String Quartet No  30 in E flat Op 32 No 2 (The Joke) and Mozart String Quartet No 21 in D K575 (“Prussian  No 1”).   Sigiswald and Sara Kuijken (violins), Marlee Thiers (viola) and Michel Boulanger (cello).

The Flemish Kuijken family are internationally recognised leaders in performances using period instruments and authentic tunings. So such a “historically informed performance” – part of a Chamber Music NZ tour – held plenty of promise. Too bad, and vexingly so, one was left with a sense of disengagement, as if having witnessed a museum exhibit rather than an ambition to give voice to some remarkable composition.

There is much to praise for the championship of echt musical performances, and few are more committed to that end than the Kuijken family: “The principle of playing every music on the instruments for which it is intended presents an undeniable and at the same time almost childish, perfect logic,” Sigiswald Kuijken was recently quoted as saying. “How can you ever pretend it is better not to do that?”

To recapture the sound of the 18th century requires instruments that are structurally more delicate, with gut strings and “unimproved” finger boards and bridges, along with all the attendant issues of intonation. One can only admire the ascetic rigor in forgoing chinrests and cello spikes. Even so, and perhaps paradoxically, there is more to music than just sound, and as one who has been genuinely moved by previous performances of K464, I was not a little dismayed by the barbiturate effect  of the Kuijkens’ version.  The No 18 is one of Mozart’s longest quartets, but it shouldn’t be an endurance test.

That said,  K464 did fire in the final two movements, and Haydn’s E flat  quartet with its jolly jape conclusion was a delight. Given similar limitations, the K575 did a far better job of holding the interest, too.

What was missing? Energy, for one thing.  And vibrancy. It’s an old debate, but one must still wonder if single-minded dedication to historical veracity rather misses the point.  When does the virtue of authenticity become an end in itself?  How can the replicated, gentler sounds that reached the ears of listeners 220 years ago possibly have the same meaning or relevance to those who didn’t travel to the concert hall by horse and carriage and did not have candles and night carts to look forward to, rather than a delayed televised rugby test or electric blankets?

It is the performance to which one looks to invest the music with meaning.  If the players cannot lift the message beyond the re-creation of historical noise, then that message has been truly eclipsed by the medium.

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