Interview with Kuss Quartet & Naoko Shimizu – part 3
When Mikayel Hakhnazaryan joined the quartet in 2008, replacing Felix Nickel, the quartet was thriving and busy, looking more for a member who would blend with them, rather than one who would force a change in direction. Hakhnazaryan had just been offered a solo cello post with a Swiss orchestra, but turned it down in order to join the Kuss Quartet.
“My colleagues said, ‘This is crazy! Don’t do it! You can’t leave a solo position in Switzerland for a string quartet!’ But in Russia we say that if you don’t take risks, you don’t drink Champagne. And I’m glad.”
Hakhnazaryan’s Armenian childhood brought many parallels with that of Kuss and Wille, he says, and made it easy for him to fit into the quartet’s culture and way of working.
“We were part of the Soviet Union, and the idea was that if you start music at an early age, then it is for a very serious reason, not just for pleasure. I started playing in string quartets very early, and we would spend hours every day playing together. It was a difficult time economically. The public transport didn’t work, and it took me an hour to walk to school, but I was really happy.”
Hakhnazaryan describes the Kuss Quartet’s playing as strikingly honest and positive. Shimizu agrees; she and they share common ground in the form of a mentor, Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados.
“I always felt that something I needed was there,” says Shimizu.
Quintets, she adds, are somehow in a class of their own. “It’s just one viola more, but somehow it’s another world. The sound becomes darker – deeper is maybe the wrong word, but somehow thicker. The possibilities make it something special.”
The Kuss Quartet often performs with guests, and has a concert series, “Kuss Plus”, dedicated to new configurations, in a popular Berlin nightclub. This brings fresh inspiration for the four musicians, and helps them re-think such fundamental matters as concert format and repertoire.
“The wife of Walter Levin once said that quartet is like a marriage without the benefit of sex,” says Wille. “In a way you are married to your colleagues. The most difficult thing is to have a personal life outside the quartet. We see more of each other than we see of our partners. The quartet is always very present in everybody’s life, and you have to give it priority. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
“So it’s a challenge to sometimes play as a quintet. With a guest who adds some extra art to it, a quartet can also be very flexible and open-minded. The form is more spontaneous than people think.”
© Shirley Apthorp