Proms Chamber Music – 8 (Artemis Quartet)

String Quartet in F minor, Op.20/5
String Quartet No.2

Artemis Quartet [Natalia Prischepenko & Heime Müller (violins), Volker Jacobsen (viola) & Eckart Runge (cello)]

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 September, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

A perplexing recital. The last of the Proms Chamber Music concerts featured the Artemis Quartet, part of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme, a Berlin-based ensemble playing together, in this formation, since 1994. Having already established a series at the Berlin Philharmonie, it hardly seems that the Artemis is exactly ‘new generation’. Be that as it may, it is an exceptionally fine group with mentors including the Berg, Emerson and Juilliard. The programme was enticing. One of Haydn’s very finest quartets (F minor seems to bring out the best in Haydn as C minor did in Mozart) and Bartók’s Second.

The Haydn started promisingly and demonstrated the Artemis’s rich-tone and superb blend and intonation; even the first movement’s exposition repeat was subtly varied – deluxe playing and a real feel for classical style. After that, however, for all the beauty of the actual execution, this seemed like very metropolitan Haydn, the Minuet lacking an assertive one-in-a-bar quality and the Trio, though perfectly voiced, was hardly bucolic. Most crucially, the Adagio – a slow dignified Siciliano and one of Haydn’s more extraordinary creations – succumbed to blandness due to an over-swift tempo, whilst the muscular concluding fugue was simply too polite.

The Bartók – written in straitened circumstances at the height of the First World War – again demonstrated the group’s total security but despite a more assertive contribution from the cellist, Eckart Runge, one longed for the gloves to come off. The central Allegro molto is marked ‘Capriccioso’ and includes subtle use of rubato to give the music its headlong impetus and specifically Hungarian character; here it sounded more like Shostakovich. Best of all was the concentrated Lento third movement where the blend of first and second violins was exemplary. One suspects the Artemis would give magnificent Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and, even, Shostakovich. However, if viewed as all-Hungarian, this programme was like goulash without paprika.

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