As a group, they look demure; understated; the essence of sobriety. But appearances can deceive: the Artemis Quartet does not sound remotely demure. Over the past few years, this Berlin-based ensemble has cemented its international reputation for intensity of approach and force of musical argument, investing core Germanic repertoire in particular with a vitality that is utterly compelling. Its players can leap, in a single bow stroke, from a snarl to a smile. It is equally capable of ratcheting up the tension, notch by notch, until it reaches near-agonising proportions. And Tuesday’s Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, marking the ensemble’s debut in the International Chamber Music Season, demonstrated this flexibility.
That is partly because the programme was so well-balanced, pairing Beethoven’s wildly temperamental late string quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131, with Brahms’s more measured Quartet in C minor, Op 51 No 1. But within each work, the Artemis also heightened the sense of light and shade.
There were moments of pure joy in the Beethoven, along with a freedom of expression and movement – no doubt helped by the fact that three of the quartet’s members play standing up. Passages of repose were spun out with all the patience of a fisherman waiting for a bite, so that, whenever the bite came, as in the final rasping Allegro, it was felt all the more keenly.
Even in the most rapid-fire sections – the capricious Scherzo, for example – not one player was left lagging behind. After all, the Artemis is not a follow-my-leader quartet: it functions as a unified body, in which no member drowns out the others. This approach was particularly effective in the Brahms, where long-breathed phrases were woven into an elegant arc as they were seamlessly passed around the group. But what chiefly stood out about the piece was the way that the intensity gradually mounted to the sweatiest, most muscular of climaxes, through subtle shifts in gear.
Amid a cloud of resin powder, scraped from their hard-worked bows, the quartet stormed their way to the conclusion. Then they returned with an encore: the mournful slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 13, the closest they got, in this blistering performance, to real sobriety.