String Quartet No.3 in B flat, Op.67
String Quartet No.1 in D minor, Op.7
Artemis Quartet [Natalia Prischepenko & Heime Müller (violins), Volker Jacobsen (viola) & Eckart Runge (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The last of this three quartets, Brahms’s B flat, from 1876, is an intriguing if at times unsatisfying combining of formal innovation and emotional reticence. Intriguing in the way that its amiable opening Vivace sets up a continuous interplay of motifs which suffuses development and reprise into one, not least when rendered with such intent understatement as here. Sparing in vibrato and undemonstrative in manner, the Artemis Quartet brought out the genial yet unsettled mood of the Andante, and Volker Jacobsen lacked nothing in authority during the quixotic intermezzo that pointedly gives the viola its head. As so often, the finale rather failed to deliver: not that the musicians under-characterised its variations, but the amalgam of the main theme with that from the first movement did not avoid contrivance, for all that the players brought them into a convincing expressive accord.
Perhaps Brahms’s love of oblique logic got the better of him such that he chose not to attempt the strategy in this way again.
Schoenberg, too, found ways of clarifying the obliqueness that his D minor quartet, written in 1905, confronts in a work whose level of complexity can seem as much unrelieved as exhilarating in performance. Yet the Artemis was fully equal to the task of clarifying its formidable synthesis of a continuous sonata process with four-movement form. A slightly spattered opening chord aside, the first half of the work unfolded with appreciation of the way in which the outlines of ‘first movement’ and ‘scherzo’ are embedded within a rigorously contrapuntal framework that emphasises motivic evolution right from the outset.
Neither was an element of imaginative fantasy missing from those transitional episodes that open-out musical expression as intently as they ensure formal cohesion – for all Schoenberg was to find ways of reining-in his material. With its lighter textures and more streamlined momentum, the work’s second half can almost seem lightweight in comparison, but the Artemis brought a charged eloquence to the ‘slow movement’ and then picked up momentum into the ‘finale’ with near-effortless assurance. Nor was this cumulative stage in the reprise over-wrought, leaving the ‘coda’ to set the seal on a tonal and emotional odyssey such as Schoenberg was never again to attempt on this scale.
A thought-provoking coupling, then, and an impressive showcase (if calling it thus is not to belittle the recital) for the Artemis Quartet, whose conviction right across the Austro-German repertoire can hardly be doubted. Given that its sympathies range across the quartet spectrum, a future Wigmore Hall recital of, say, Schubert’s G major (D887) and Elliott Carter’s First quartets should not present an insurmountable challenge.