The Artemis Quartet Offers Cerebral Coherence and Intellectual Precision – and Fine Playing

Reserved. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 11.3.2014. (CS)

Beethoven: String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131
Brahms: String Quartet in C minor, Op.51 No.1

Entering the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I was slightly startled by the arrangement of the expectant music stands on the stage platform: in the centre, a chair for the cellist perched aloft a square podium, facing the audience directly, the stand low and flat; to the right, another low, square-on stand, presumably for the viola; and to the left, two inward-facing stands, higher, for the violins.  We are more familiar with an intimate circular or curved placement of the constituent members, facilitating a sense of familiarity and closeness.  That some quartet members choose to stand is hardly a matter worth mentioning nowadays, but the spatial organisation on the platform made me anticipate something out of the ordinary and thought-provoking; and, this highly accomplished performance by the Artemis Quartet was indeed notable for its cerebral coherence and intellectual precision.

 That is not to suggest that the Artemis Quartet’s renditions of Beethoven’s astonishing late quartet and Brahms’s first quartet – the latter, reluctantly relinquished to the publisher after 25 years of gestation! – were not also passionate and engaging.  Yet, we might have anticipated something singular and challenging from the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet, which was founded in 1989 by four students determined to master the challenges of Beethoven’s Op.131 – one of the most unconventional pieces in the literature; who have subsequently been awarded an honorary membership of the Beethoven-Haus Society in recognition of their interpretations of Beethoven; and who spent two seasons from 2009-11 exclusively performing Beethoven, culminating in an award-winning recording project of the complete quartets for Virgin Classics/EMI.

In Beethoven’s Op.131 quartet, form and meaning are inseparable: there are, unusually, seven movements, but they are conceived as a single, unbroken whole.  The Artemis’s consummate appreciation of the structure and dimensions was impressive, as they revealed the convincing cohesion of the separate parts, but at the same time made clear the more traditional four-movement pattern which underlies the work.  Thus, the dark opening Adagio was seen to function as an introduction to the radiant Allegro molto vivace into which it blossomed.  Similarly, the brief, rhapsodic third movement served as a transition to the grand theme and variations which form the substantial slow movement.  And, after the Presto, the sixth movement recalled the introductory function of the opening Adagio, leading into the sprightly rondo finale.  The profound musical and intellectual acuity of the performers enabled the listener to perceive the logic of Beethoven’s radical architectural experimentation.

The spaciousness which characterised the melancholy theme which opens the fugal Adagio established an eerie, unsettling mood, the individual lines possessing a searching quality.  I found some of the details a little mannered: the dramatic sforzando in the second bar, for example, was not so much forcefully accented as swelled through by means of both bow speed and an excessive vibrato, although later repetitions had more immediate attack.  What was striking was the evenness of the textual blend, together with the restrained but inexorable unfolding of the lines.  The Allegro molto vivace lifted the shadows, but only partially and intermittently, as if the sunshine which warmed us was occasionally filtered through cloud.

In the brief recitative-like Allegro moderato the first violin’s effortless elaborations were both cleanly projected and naturally incorporated into the ever-changing texture.  Such unity was also demonstrated in the subsequent slow variations with their perpetually shifting tempi and colours.  In the fifth movement, Presto, the four players seemed to enter a more dynamic conversation, even physical moving inwards, leaning towards each other; the warmth of the tone created a buoyant brightness, and this warmth spilled over, lightening the gravity of the sixth movement, in which the falling melodic lines span a never-ceasing dialogue.

The three-note rhythmic motif which is a spring-board for the galloping finale was executed with exciting vigour, and throughout this movement there was an exhilarating sense of boldness and audaciousness, typified by some ringing pizzicato passages.  A more indulgent lyricism characterised the tumbling semiquaver scales which leapt rhetorically to a repeated note, the phrase passed among the players, aspiring ever higher.  One delighted in the sheer beauty of the bright violin tone and the rich expressiveness of the more burnished viola.

As they turned slightly to face the audience at the rousing close, it seemed to me that this performance aimed not to dwell on the intensity of the introverted ruminations of the musical reasoning, but to present us with a revelation of the ‘meaning’ which the players have, through profound exploration, found within those arguments.

The first movement of Brahms’s C Minor quartet was characterised by a combination of urgency and tenderness, of melodic sensuousness and rhythmic incisiveness.  Given the broad metre and typically Brahmsian pulsing cross-rhythms, perhaps the sweeping first theme might have been more expansive, although the counter-material was gracefully presented, and throughout the movement Eckart Runge’s driving cello lines gave both breadth and forward movement.  This is ‘busy’, dense writing, and the Artemis revealed the strenuous development of motivic material and the harmonic and textual contentions.

A richly expressive Romance – in which the independent lines wove a resounding web, the intense lyricism contrasting with the subsequent more hushed, tentative quaver motif – was followed by a restless Allegretto.  An extrovert rendition of the final Allegro concluded in confident, rhetorical fashion.

Such a deeply considered and flawlessly executed performance deserved and received the audience’s generous appreciation.  It was, however, in the encore – the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor Op.13 – that the players truly relaxed and offered us a wonderful portrait of intimacy and nostalgia.

Claire Seymour