String Quartet in D, Op.18/3
String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.117
String Quartet in E minor, Op.59/2 (Razumovsky)
Artemis Quartet [Natalia Prischepenko & Gregor Sigl (violins), Friedemann Weigle (viola) & Eckart Runge (cello)]
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 13 December, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
A cunningly crafted programme with early- and mid-period Beethoven encasing what is arguably one of Shostakovich’s greatest works.
The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet has been in existence since 1989 although in the last year it has undergone substantial change through the introduction of Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigle – not that one would have known, for the polish on offer at this concert would have done credit to a longer-established group.
Immediately apparent in the opening Beethoven was the quartet’s impeccable balance and uncommonly sweet tone. This was music-making at once relaxed and characterful with great care taken over pauses. So often Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets are despatched as though they are simply there to be got through. Here though each movement was given its due, the Andante genuinely con moto yet with real delicacy in the staccato passages and the third movement treated with a lilting gossamer lightness.
Even more impressive was the Shostakovich, its five linked movements culminating in the maelstrom of the massive finale that lasts more than twice as long as any of the preceding movements. From 1964 the quartet is dedicated to Shostakovich’s third wife, Irina Antonovna, with whom he was enjoying new stability, not that one would have guessed it from the anxious circling tone of the opening movement with its “crippled Polka” or the third movement’s manic William Tell-like Klezmer. Hugely impressively, the Artemis Quartet got to the heart of the matter without interpretative overstatement or overt breast-beating. The fugal finale’s moto perpetuo, when it finally burst forth at an unstoppable allegro, generated a massive energy the more potent for the group’s incisive articulation and faultless ensemble.
Equally impressive was the second ‘Razumovsky’ quartet with its precisely calibrated decisive opening, and – despite the swift tempo – the movement’s pregnant pauses perfectly judged. The musicians also found the time to make the most of the brief moment of stillness before the coda. The group really got to grips with the individual character of each movement, the extended Adagio benefiting from a degree of understatement, the Allegretto lolloping and light and the finale a manic jig in Beethoven’s Celtic mode. This was Beethoven-playing on the very highest level.
The Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet was the welcome if unexpected encore, delivered with rare poise, subtlety and perfect intonation.