Van Kuijk Quartet

String Quartet

November 12, 2017, 4 PM

The Warne Ballroom at the Cosmos Club

Formed in 2012, the Van Kuijk Quartet won first prize at the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition in 2015. Resident at ProQuartet in Paris, they have studied with members of renowned ensembles including the Alban Berg, Artemis, and Hagen Quartets. The Van Kuijk Quartet has quickly established an international reputation with concerts in London, Paris, Verbier, and at the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival. For their recording of quartets by Mozart for the Alpha label, The Guardian wrote: “All four players contribute to the extensive color palette, precise blending and, where apt, the sense of fun that makes these well-judged, serious performances so vivid.” Their program also includes Debussy’s only String Quartet, as well as some works by Mozart.


Divertimento in D Major, K. 136/125a

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
     Animé et très décidé
     Assez vif et bien rythmé
     Andantino, doucement expressif
     Très modéré


String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465
     Adagio — Allegro
     Andante cantabile
     Menuetto and Trio. Allegro

Please note that this concert takes place at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave., NW.

Dress Code at the Cosmos Club:

Gentlemen are expected to wear jackets, dress slacks, a collared long-sleeved shirt (tucked-in) or turtleneck at all times.

Ladies are expected to dress in an equivalent fashion, which means dresses, suits, skirts or dress slacks with jackets or tops of equivalent formality. Leggings or tights, unless worn with skirts, dresses, or long jackets, are not considered to be of equivalent formality.

Military uniforms and national dress of equivalent formality are also acceptable.

Sweat suits or other athletic or sports attire, jeans or other denim garments, sneakers, flip-flops, athletic footwear and shorts are never acceptable in the public rooms.

Nicolas Van Kuijk, Violin
Sylvain Favre Bulle, Violin
Emmanuel François, Viola
François Robin, Cello

Currently BBC New Generation Artists, the Van Kuijk Quartet’s international accolades boast First, Best Beethoven and Best Haydn Prizes at the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet competition, First Prize and an Audience Award at the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition, as well as laureates of the Aix-en-Provence Festival Academy. Furthermore, they will join the ECHO Rising Stars roster for the 2017/2018 season.

Since their formation in 2012, the ensemble has become an established presence at major international venues, including Wigmore Hall in London, Auditorium du Louvre and Salle Gaveau in Paris, Tonhalle in Zurich, Musikverein in Vienna, Berliner Philharmonie, Tivoli Concert Series in Denmark, Sage Gateshead, and at festivals in Cheltenham, Heidelberg, Lockenhaus, Davos, Verbier, Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier/Radio France, Evian, Auvers-sur-Oise, Stavanger (Norway), Concentus Moraviae (Czech Republic), Haydn/Esterházy in Fertod (Hungary), Eilat (Israel), and Canberra (Australia). This season saw the quartet make their debut in Hong Kong, Australia, and Taiwan. They are also scheduled to return to North America this Fall for appearances at The Frick Collection in New York, The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and Salle Bourgie in Montreal.

The Quartet records exclusively for Alpha Classics. Their debut recording, Mozart, was released to critical acclaim in Fall 2016, and will be followed by a recording of French music to be released in late 2017.

The Van Kuijk Quartet is in residence at Proquartet, Paris, where they study with members of the Alban Berg, Artemis, and Hagen quartets. Having taken their first steps as students of the Ysaye Quartet, the young musicians have worked with Günter Pichler at the Escuela Superior de Mùsica Reina Sofia in Madrid; having been supported generously by the International Institute of Chamber Music of Madrid.

The quartet also participates in international academies; at the McGill International String Quartet Academy in Montreal, with Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet and André Roy; at the Weikersheim International Chamber Music Course with the Vogler Quartet and Heime Müller, formerly of the Artemis Quartet, as well as the renowned academies in both Verbier and Aix-en-Provence. Mécénat Musical Société Générale is the Van Kuijk’s main sponsor.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Divertimento in D Major, K. 136/125a
Mozart began his musical career as a prodigy, and by his teens, he was developing ideas across different genres at a rate that might be considered the 18th-century equivalent of internet time. The role that his travels played in stimulating this development cannot be overstated, especially given the conservatism that prevailed in his native Salzburg.

It was during a trip to Italy in 1770 that Mozart embarked on his first String Quartet (K. 80). Two years later, when he was only 16, along with another standalone quartet, he wrote his first full-scale set of quartets on the road (K. 155-160). This set of Six Milanese Quartets was a byproduct of a trip to Milan with his father Leopold to oversee the production of young Wolfgang’s opera Lucio Silla.

In 1772 while in Salzburg, Mozart penned a set of three string Divertimenti (K. 136-138). Scholars remain uncertain as to both the purpose of these works and whether Mozart wrote them for an ensemble of string players or quartet style, one-to-a-part. Nowadays they are encountered as both: played by string orchestras (and known as “the Salzburg Symphonies”) or, as we hear K. 136 in the context of this program, presented as a string quartet (though these works are not counted among the composer’s catalogue of 23 string quartets).

Yet, writes the Mozart authority Stanley Sadie, “these delightfully fluent and popular pieces—the earliest of his music to hold a firm place in the repertory—stand curiously apart from any of his stylistic mainstreams.” Mozart did not compose string quartets as such in Salzburg, even though the style of composition here is more filigreed and distinct from “the simple types of accompaniment that abound in his other occasional works for larger groups of around this period,” Sadie notes. Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 has only three movements, and in his manuscript score Mozart labeled the fourth line “basso” rather than “violoncello,” which some have interpreted as a preference in these works for a quartet of two violins, viola, and double bass.

In any case, aspects of Mozart’s blossoming love for opera and his Italian travels are evident hee—he even quotes themes from Lucio Silla.  The first violin is given a “prima-donna-like role” in the opening movement, as the musicologist Uwe Kraemer describes it, while a “tender, Italianate charm” pervades the Andante. The Presto last movement then turns its gaze back north, synthesizing ideas from the opening Allegro with German counterpoint.

Claude Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
The String Quartet is an early work of Claude Debussy that contains tantalizing hints of the mature composer’s personality. It premiered near the end of 1893, when Debussy was 31 years old. It was followed only a year later by Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, his subtly revolutionary orchestral breakthrough. Though the Quartet is the sole example of the genre in Debussy’s output, Debussy returned to chamber music for a series of hauntingly beautiful works late in his career.

Meanwhile, new ways of thinking were part of the air Debussy breathed as a young Bohemian in Paris. He lived the life of a young artist to the hilt, caught up in scandalous love affairs while also thriving on the stimulus of gatherings with fellow painters, poets, and musicians. Marcel Proust was one of his admirers (and penned a fascinating description of the Quartet), while the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe became a close friend. He also founded the Ysaÿe Quartet, which gave the Quartet its premiere in December 1893.

Debussy’s Quartet looks squarely at the noble tradition inherited from the German masters. (This is the only work to which he appends the rather formal designation of an opus number: not Op. 1 but Op. 10—though he had not used them before and would not in future.)  It’s as if Debussy, already a proclaimed freethinker with regard to musical matters, is saying, “I can do this too, but in my own way.” 

Thus the Quartet is cast in the traditional four movements. At the same time, its overall structure revolves around a basic motivic germ. This motif returns in different guises to bind the work with a sense of organic cohesion. Within the opening measures, Debussy introduces this signature idea, easily recognized by its intervals. The first movement is the most “Classical” in its form, but Debussy generates a sea of shifting textures that at times belie the presence of only four instruments. Subsidiary themes reconfigure the core idea in new shapes—but all such wizardry seems less important than the sensual delights Debussy offers.

The Scherzo-like second movement continues in a spirit of bold exploration as the texture of plucked strings is juxtaposed with the throbbing eloquence of the viola: a counterpoint of textures. The restlessness of the first two movements gives way to the veiled beauty of the Andantino, in which again the viola is given a spotlight. Debussy’s harmonies, so enticing, also breathe a hauntingly archaic air that transcends the binary modes of Major and minor. The last movement eventually resumes the driving energy that had preceded the Andantino. The players pick up speed as the Quartet’s cyclic motif recurs in the various guises we have heard in the preceding movements. But Debussy propels the finale forward with textural finesse rather than thematic logic. The coda, like a sudden rush of blood, shakes off any lingering fantasies encountered along the way.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quartet in G Major, K.156
Following Mozart’s quartet efforts of 1772 while in Italy, he produced another set of six during his trip to Vienna in 1773. Following this spurt of writing, there was a long gap before he took up the genre again. He had left Salzburg behind to resettle in the Habsburg capital by the time he began his next set of quartets. And he took his time to craft them: from the end of 1782 until January 1785. The result, a set of six quartets published in 1785, is one of the most astonishing achievements of Mozart’s entire career, known to posterity as the “Haydn" Quartets on account of their dedication to his great colleague and friend.

When exactly the two geniuses first met in person is not certain, but they developed a personal friendship during Mozart’s Vienna period, and their mutual influence was of incalculable value to music history. The Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon writes that Mozart was “music’s greatest as-similator,” and quickly “mastered all Haydn’s tricks of the trade.” Haydn, his senior by 24 years, wasn’t “wary about taking on new elements, even from Mozart.” He marveled at his friend’s achievements, declaring that “scarcely anyone can brook comparison with the great Mozart.”

Rather than becoming professional rivals, they used this awareness of each other to bring their own work to new heights. In his approach to the string quartet genre, Mozart made a quantum leap beyond his Italian-tinged examples of the previous decade. For this program, as on their 2016 release (Mozart), the Van Kuijk Quartet juxtaposes the youthful K. 136 Divertimento in D Major with the last of the “Haydn” Quartets: the String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465.

Three of the “Haydn” Quartets bear monikers of their own, including this one: “Dissonance,” which arguably carries the weightiest reputation of all of Mozart’s string quartets. Its crowning position as the last of the set corresponds to its character as a “summation of the artistic evolution” Mozart had traced since embarking on the “Haydn” Quartets a little over two years before, and its “instrumental brilliance, a kind of concert hall grandeur … exceeds anything in this direction among its predecessors,” writes Alan M. Kriegsman (former dance critic for The Washington Post).

The nickname “Dissonance” derives from the pronounced use of just that—musical dissonance—in the Adagio introduction, in which the home key of C Major, normally sunny, is immediately clouded. In fact, this Adagio is shrouded in harmonic mystery. The cello begins by spelling out the anchor tone of C, but as the other instruments join in, they wander in a fog that anticipates something of the Chaos prelude in Haydn’s oratorio Die Schöpfung (written in 1796-98). Some even hear an intimation of the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth from the next century.

This strategy renders the emergence of the Allegro theme all the more powerfully reassuring. Yet ambiguity has hardly been banished, and Mozart includes numerous other surprises in this first movement, including its soft landing in the coda. The Andante cantabile again brings the composer’s allegiance to opera to mind, while the Minuet stands out for its vigor and embodies a Trio in C minor. Mozart’s admiration for Haydn is clearly apparent in the sonata-form finale, though, notes Kriegsman, “there is a sort of rhapsodic frenzy and melodic profusion here that are peculiar to Mozart.”

The composer already had a reputation among his contemporaries for writing “difficult” music, and critics of the era were notably divided about these works. (Some even wondered whether Mozart had been the victim of printing errors to account for the strange harmonic digressions of the slow introduction.) But of the value of these quartets, Haydn himself had no doubts. Mozart’s father Leopold recorded Haydn’s reaction after listening to these works during an at-home performance: “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

—Thomas May, 2017