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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 13 in G, B192/Op. 106a (1896) [38:47].
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Lettersb (1928) [25:49].
Artemis String Quartet.
rec. Klaus-von-Bismarksaal, Cologne Radio, a 1-5 February 2003; b Stolberger Strasse Studio, Cologne, 20-22 June 2004. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3533992 [64:36] 

The Artemis sees things differently. Not for them the perceptions of some of the finest recordings of Op.106 – the old Prague HMVs and Menges Quartet Deccas on 78; the (old) Vlach on Praga and the (new) Prague on DG, the Panocha, or the Stamitz on Bayer; and so on. The Artemis takes an entirely different approach. Theirs is one of huge contrasts and outsize gestures with a recording that is so close that one hears every anticipatory sniff – and there are plenty. It’s playing that shakes down Op.106 and refashions it as a study in vehemence, opposition and rugged intercession.
Actually it’s sometimes refreshing to be brought up short once in a while. The cello saws malevolently in the second movement, there’s little relief in the folkloric moments, which are treated rather as a shadowy irrelevance to the main event - seeing through glasses, darkly. The performances are charged, dynamic and visceral. It’s edge-of-one’s seat listening and doubtless playing – violently animated. On the other hand we could suggest that this playing is hectoring, over-driven and manic; that the relation between expressive moments and rhythmic dynamism is fudged: that the disquieting passion – which is certainly there - is fatally overbalanced. Further that dynamics are constantly exaggerated, gestures are unidiomatic; there is no quiet playing at all – and little respite from the storm of torrid violence; that march rhythms are histrionic and over wrought; that the pizzicato episode in the finale is coarse; that much of the phrasing in the finale is banal; and that the corporate sonority of the quartet is unattractive, splintered and often downright unpleasant.
If you want a historic recording grounded in the soil try the Prague on Biddulph; an LP era Vlach-Praga – not the reconstituted ensemble on Naxos – or the Panocha or Stamitz.
Since the Janáček No.2 is already a quartet that asks for and needs powerful control of contrasts there’s slightly less room for apoplexy in the Artemis performance. The composer himself was known to favour the passionate expressivity of the Moravian Quartet, so flavoursome and big gestures are not to be disdained. The Artemis are keen to pinpoint some expressionist logic in the sound-world – but the result can be motoric (movement one) and exaggerated to such an extent that there’s little sense of the tension and release so fundamental to the success of this music. The corporate sonority of this group is too fractured to do much justice to the work and nor does their pulse sound at all natural. At the tempo they adopt the rusticities of the finale pass without registering at all and the wit that is here is, in this performance, laced with barely concealed hysteria. The contrasts are once again thereby rendered meaningless.
I’m afraid that very little in either performance appealed to me. Exaggeration is here taken to the level of violence and the result is caricature.
Jonathan Woolf


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