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September 11, 2012 5:34 pm
Aficionados of the string quartet repertoire have been aware for some time of the exceptional qualities of the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet, but it is only thanks to their recent series of recordings that their reputation has become truly international. And it is only now that London is beginning to take notice. The questions posed by this start-of-season visit were: do the Artemis make as large an impact “live” as on CD, and do their programming skills match their musical prowess?
On both counts, Sunday’s recital delivered an emphatic “yes”. It was an inspired idea to frame the Grosse Fuge, the most difficult quartet music Beethoven wrote, with two works by Mendelssohn – the early-ish Op.44 No 1 and his last work in the genre, Op.80, completed shortly after his sister’s death and a few weeks before his own at the age of 38. The contrast was stark but not illogical: Mendelssohn’s language may be easier on the ear than Beethoven’s, but it is no less intense, as these performances underlined.
The Artemis turn intensity into a creed – though not unremittingly so and never resorting to the sort of physical gesticulation that some quartets confuse with expression. The early Mendelssohn’s opening allegro had good humour as well as exuberance, the musical parts emerging like a seamless conversation in which no voice predominated. There was not an ounce of slack. To the slow movement of the later quartet they brought a quasi-Elgarian wistfulness.
For the rest, the overriding quality was freshness of attack, each player gobbling up the notes in a spirit of discovery, with the sort of mutual trust and unanimity of purpose that encourages risk-taking. The Artemis like their music fast, but the pace is never forced. And the secret of their intensity? They are prime exponents of the German concept of Klangrede (sound-speech) – the understanding of music as an argument to be divined and articulated rather than a seamless skein of sound.
The Grosse Fuge is the perfect landscape for this. The Artemis’s blistering performance made no attempt to soften the uncompromising, sometimes incomprehensible thrust of Beethoven’s ideas, and yet the piece came across with a wondrous majesty.
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