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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet Op. 18, No. 4 in C minor (1800) [23:32]
String Quartet Op. 59, No. 2 in E minor (1805) [35:54]
Artemis Quartet. Natalia Prischepenko (violin I) (Op. 59 no. 2), (violin II); Gregor Sigl, (violin I) (Op. 18 no. 4), (violin II); Friedemann Weigle (viola); Eckart Runge (cello).
rec. 13-15 February and 5-7 May, 2008, Teldex Studio, Berlin. DDD
VIRGIN 3802682 [59:43] 

 

Experience Classicsonline

I understand that many authorities insist on identifying works by opus number instead of a traditional ordinal numbering system. In many cases this is because grouped opus numbers are not necessarily written in the number they are ordered. For instance, Beethoven’s string quartet Op. 18, No. 4 is not necessarily the fourth quartet he wrote. Some musicologists even think it may have been his first. But, for all that, opus numbers can be as confusing and meaningless as any other arbitrary number or name. So is it really worthwhile to eschew traditional ordinal numbers? For those, like me, who don’t have excess brain storage space in which to carry around encyclopedic lists of various composers’ catalogues in their heads, this disc of string quartets contains Beethoven’s Fourth and Eighth. 

Setting that debate aside, this new release by the Artemis Quartet is rather good. It doesn’t necessarily elbow any of my favorites out of the way, and I do have reservations in a few places, but it continues to point toward the rise of the Artemis into the ranks of major artists. It also comes as good ear food for listeners hungry to hear the state of the performing art in the early twenty-first century. Beethoven playing is the best it has been since the heyday of the mid-twentieth century, when objective playing first came into energetic vogue but before it had degenerated into faceless neutrality. 

In the Fourth, the Artemis Quartet strikes a satisfying stylistic balance between Beethoven’s classical roots and the powerful heights of his future musical visions. By comparison, the Juilliard is much more reserved and classical, whereas the Cleveland seems contrastingly extreme, searching for late Beethoven in a work that can handle it, but arguably doesn’t need it. In a sense, the controlled balance and a certain darkness of sound by the Artemis reminds me of the Guarneri, but with faster, more alert tempos. 

The first movement, marked “Allegro ma non tanto,” is marked not merely by a smartly chosen tempo, but by animated phrasing and crisp but not clipped full chords. The lyrical second theme is given in tempo, keeping it clearly in the shadow of the urgent main theme. The “Andante scherzo quasi allegretto” is given the pointed, humorous phrasing necessary to bringing off this experiment in crossing a scherzo and a slow movement. The Artemis brings nervousness to the fore in the following “Minuetto,” channeling energy into tight ensemble playing. The trio is more relaxed, almost anticipating Mendelssohn’s airy style. The finale is balanced to allow a little expressive room in its various episodes, leaving it perhaps a little less headlong than it could be, though there is great animation in the appropriate places. A headlong tempo finally kicks in for an exciting dash through the coda. 

Beethoven’s Eighth Quartet is the second of the set he dedicated to the Russian Count Razumovsky, and honors him with the quotation of a Russian folk tune in the Scherzo. This work is one of my absolute favorites, and I was eager to hear what this young quartet had to say in it. 

The first movement starts off a bit grimly, without as threatening a punch as some of the superstar quartets make, though with an effective leanness of tone brought about by playing those stark opening chords (and their later reappearances) without vibrato. The Artemis soon lashes into the bridge leading to a sweet but anxious rendition of the lyrical second theme. It wouldn’t bother me if the quartet had “opened up” a few more moments with the occasional pause for breath, which they do here in a few places, but not many. The slow movement is given an effective, hymn-like shape, without being allowed to sag into damp drifts. The secret is in the nicely sprung rhythms underpinning the melodic effusions. Happily, the Artemis goes for a brisker than traditional scherzo, far better relating the movement to the first and last than the overly cautious rate that has been common through most of the last century or so. But it must be admitted that the trio comes off a little desperate at this speed. Some will find it unsettling, others will find it invigorating. I’m inclined to think Beethoven would have liked it just fine. 

So far, so good. But I have some serious reservations about the finale. The Artemis comes close to going off the tracks in a number of places here, though they are hardly the only group to run into problems in this quirky movement. The presto tempo (or is it Beethoven’s later-added metronome mark?) often goads quartets into pushing the tempo past the point of rhythmic stability. I suppose one could defend a little rhythmic instability as a sort of emotional volatility, but in a movement dominated by twitchy rhythm, unsteadiness can become aggravating. The Artemis paces the movement so fast that they are constantly on the edge of instability. They fudge the tempo slightly up and down to get all the notes in at one spot, then rush it in another spot, leaving short notes lost in a general wash of sound. Going right to that edge means that they have no room to flex their muscles within that tempo, and it also means that when they get to the faster coda, it’s pretty much guaranteed that there’s going to be some scrambling. And there is. The dash for the final bars becomes slapdash, and they can’t quite maintain the daredevil tempo, giving it a sinking feeling, just when it should be going through the roof. 

But in running aground on this movement, the Artemis is far from being alone. It may simply be that I’m too fussy, because I also have found myself dissatisfied with such ensembles as the Juilliard, Smetana, Tokyo, Cleveland and others in this tetchy movement. In fact, my all-time favorite rendition of the finale comes from a rather obscure group more known for their Bartók than their Beethoven. The New Hungarian Quartet  was formed at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1972 after the disbanding of the original Hungarian Quartet, Zoltan Szekeley’s great ensemble. Violist Denes Koromzay was the common thread in both ensembles, and he continued the tradition of a more contained, classical quartet sound at a time when the rest of the world was reveling in the big, luscious sound of such quartets as the Cleveland and the Tokyo Quartets. They recorded a handful of albums for the small Vox label in the 1970s, before Koromzay’s passing disbanded the group. Now that period instruments have swept through the landscape and given our ears a good scrubbing, the big, juicy groups now sound distinctly high-calorie, whereas the leaner approach of the New Hungarian Quartet sounds more authentic. Alas, not all of the NHQ’s moments are as finely gauged or energized as this finale though at Vox’s bargain price, their moments still remain worth having. 

What I particularly like about the NHQ is the way they stage manage this finale. To avoid sounding hectic or desperate, they choose a tempo that is broad enough to allow room for tremendous attack without sapping drive or falling apart, but at the same time is fast enough to feel energized. The secret is in the sprung rhythms, which make the music feel fast even though it’s over a half-minute slower than the racing versions. This tempo allows for a powerful outlay of energy during the last reappearance of the rondo theme, without slowing the tempo. This is followed by a tightening of pulse so exciting that it makes it seem as if the group had just pushed to a point beyond which they would have collapsed into chaos. The players of the NHQ hold their biggest gamble until their final card. The Artemis players, on the other hand, gamble too much, too soon, dissipating energy instead of gathering it up for the final push. But if they live with this music and learn how to better channel it some day, then watch out, this group could give us a great Eighth. 

For now, my preferences between these two interpretations leans towards the Fourth. The recorded sound is spacious but clear, a touch distant and cool. 

Mark Sebastian Jordan





 


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