Duke Performances presented the young members of the Kuss Quartet in a challenging program at the Reynolds Theater. The quartet is named for the diminutive first violinist, Jana Kuss, something rather out of the ordinary these days, with ensembles named for Greek gods or peoples (Kronos, Jupiter, Lydian), places (Cleveland, Colorado), or schools (Juilliard). Kuss is joined by violinist Oliver Wille, violist William Coleman, and cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan, the latter replacing original cellist Felix Nickel. The group was formed at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in 1991, and participated in the Professional String Quartet Training Program at the New England Conservatory (as did the Jupiters, heard in Raleigh last spring).

The large audience at Reynolds enjoyed a most convincing reading of Haydn’s “Lark” quartet, Op. 64, No. 5, a performance which allowed one to bask in the master’s best qualities, those of wit and good humor, rather than viewing him as a deficient precursor of Mozart and Beethoven. The Quartet has drunk deep of the fountain renewed by period-instrument ensembles, with relaxed rather than driven tone, minimal use of vibrato, and a conversational approach to musical rhetoric, and their Haydn was a charming companion, one knowing exactly how to spin out an anecdote for best effect, and never becoming a bore, nor monopolizing the conversation.

After such an introduction to the quartet’s talents, many if not most of the listeners may have been put off by the extended work which concluded the first half, the third quartet by Helmut Lachenmann, subtitled “Grido” (shout, scream, or cry in Italian), a piece written for the Arditti Quartet. Wille presented the extended techniques required of the players by Lachenmann (with unbelieving chortles from the audience), and there was a noticeable sigh when he informed us that the piece would last 25 minutes. (There were certainly listeners keeping track to see how much longer they would have to suffer…)

For a piece named “Grido”, the dynamics were chiefly to the piano side of the spectrum, sometimes as quiet as pppp or ppppp. The language was lightyears away from the usual idiom for string quartet, even for the twentieth-century quartet, closer perhaps to acousmatic or electroacoustic works, and the work was masterfully played by the Kuss Quartet. The problem in communication for such a piece is that listeners have so very little in the way of a frame of reference that “events” pass by with no meanings attached or attachable, no narrative, something bearable in a short work, but difficult in a work of almost a half-hour. (Those interested in hearing the Arditti performance of the piece can find it on Youtube.

The concert concluded with the “Rosamunde” Quartet in A minor, D. 804 of Franz Schubert, which to these ears seemed a poor choice in terms of program-building. The work, at about 35 minutes, is substantially longer than the Lachenmann, which had exhausted the powers of concentration of both the audience and the quartet. Worse, the piece is wintry, bleak, with only glimpses of contentment, and far too much repetition. Heavenly length – not! Much better would have been a briefer work of airy froth, to send the audience out into the cold with a smile. The tepid applause did last long enough for the Kuss to play an encore, an elegiac “Cypress” by Antonin Dvořák.

This ensemble has the potential to become one of the great chamber music groups, but needs to learn that a concert should be more, rather than less, than the sum of its parts. I would imagine that a substantial portion of the audience left disgruntled, rather than charmed, pleased, and amazed, as they might have been by a group with such talent and musicality.