This Virgin Classics release is the fourth in the Artemis Quartet’s projected cycle of complete Beethoven string quartets. Now Berlin based, the Artemis was founded in 1989 at music school in Lübeck where they decided to give priority to the continuation of their studies. The official start of the ensemble’s performing career was in 1999 with a recital at the Berlin Philharmonie. In 2007 Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigle joined. It can’t have been easy to recover from two changes in personnel but on the evidence of the recordings made since the change, the transition has clearly been a fruitful one.
The Artemis commences this Beethoven release with the String Quartet in B flat major
, Op. 18/6. The quartet is from the set of six String Quartets
Op. 18 known collectively as the ‘Lobkowitz
taking the name from their commissioner Prince Lobkowicz a generous and enlightened Viennese patron of the arts. It seems that Beethoven himself gave the title ‘La Melancholia
) to the B flat major
score. With the string quartet the twenty-eight year old Beethoven was exploring new compositional territory. Beethoven had already written a wide range of chamber music, including: String Trios
, Piano Trios
, Cello Sonatas
and Violin Sonatas.
Undoubtedly aware of the impressive legacy from Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven had yet to compose a string quartet. For Beethoven the time around writing his set of ‘Lobkowitz
(1798/1800) was one of the most fertile and creative of his career with the composition of the masterworks: Piano Sonata in C minor
’; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major
; Symphony No. 1 in C major
; Symphony No. 2 in D major
; Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major
’; Piano Sonata in C sharp minor
’ and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor
Cast in sonata form the joyful opening movement Allegro con brio
is played with unerring boldness and considerable verve. A sense of exhaustion yet tenderness is created in the wistful Adagio ma non troppo
like parents watching protectively over young children sleeping. In the lively and tail-chasing Scherzo
: Allegro - Trio
the thrusting playing is full of boisterous energy. I especially enjoyed the subtle interpretation of the striking La Malinconia
. Adagio - attacca
that provides an airless melancholic state from which there seems no escape. Played with unforced fluency I was struck by the marked Haydnesque feel to highly engaging Allegretto quasi allegro
- so sun-drenched and dance-like. I love the way the Artemis accelerate the music to its prestissimo
In my collection I have a number of excellent alternative accounts of the B flat major Quartet
, Op. 18/6 that deserve consideration. I greatly admire the thrillingly expressive yet scrupulous interpretation from the Henschel Quartet recorded in 2004 at Munich on Arte Nova Classics 82876 63996 2 (c/w Quartet
, Op. 127). There is the exhilarating performance from the Takács Quartet recorded in 2003 at St. Georges, Bristol on Decca B0001864-02 (c/w Set of Quartets
, Op. 18). Recorded in 2008 at New York City the Alexander Quartet give vibrant and assertive interpretations on Foghorn Classics CD1996 (c/w Set of Quartets
, Op. 18). For those who prefer period instrument performances the gloriously played offering from Quatuor Mosaïques recorded in 1994 at Grafenegg Schloss is unrivalled on Naïve E 8901 (c/w Quartet
, Op. 18/5).
Composed in 1825/26 the String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major
, Op. 130 is a substantial six movement work baring a dedication to wealthy patron Prince Nikolas Galitzin of St. Petersburg. The first performance of the B flat major
score was given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in 1826 at Vienna. It included the Große Fuge
as the final movement. Beethoven did compose a shorter and less demanding alternative Finale
- a Rondo
. The Große Fuge
was published as an independent work as Op. 133. On this recording the Artemis has chosen to include Beethoven’s original conception.
Marked Adagio ma non troppo
the opening movement is high on contrasting ideas primarily consisting of solemn writing with impassioned bursts of fractious energy. The very brief Presto
just rushes along with a sense of jollity and mischievousness. It would be hard to imagine this movement played with more exuberance. In the Poco scherzoso
: Andante con moto ma non troppo
the rather austere opening gives way to elegant music of agreeable self-assurance. The fourth movement Alla Danza tedesca
: Allegro assai
is full of high spirits and tomfoolery with the melodic line darting and weaving between the various instruments. One immediately feels a deep aura of spirituality in the great Cavatina
: Adagio molto expressivo.
Somehow the Artemis manages to convey an ethereal sense of time almost standing still.
The final movement, the uncompromising and often bewildering Große Fuge
, is marked Overtura
: Allegro - Meno mosso e moderato - Allegro - Fuga
) - Meno mosso e moderato - Allegro molto e con brio - Allegro.
In the Virgin Classics booklet notes Volker Scherliess (translated Paula Kennedy) explains, “In formal terms the Große Fuge consists of a sequence and combination of individual fugues based on the same thematic cell
.” A chamber musician friend likened completing a Große Fuge
performance to being as mentally and physically testing as climbing the summit of the north face of the Eiger. Making a strong impression the Artemis traverses the challenging range of emotions with great skill and assurance. Certainly their innate feel for the architecture of the score is used to significant advantage.
I have three excellent accounts of the Quartet
, Op. 130 and the Große Fuge
, Op. 133 in my collection that are worthy of praise. The beautifully played accounts from the Alban Berg Quartet were recorded live in 1989 at Vienna on EMI Classics 4 76820 2 (c/w Quartets
Op. 127; 131; 132 & 135). From 2003/4 the Takács Quartet made their potent and characterful recordings at St. Georges, Bristol on Decca 470 849-2 (c/w Quartets
Op. 95 ‘Serioso
’; 127; 131; 132 & 135). The Emerson Quartet produced their compelling recording in 1994 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York on Deutsche Grammophon 474 341-2 (c/w Quartets
Op. 127; 131; 132 & 135). Recorded in 2008 at New York City the Alexander Quartet deliver splendidly judged performances on Foghorn Classics CD1996 (c/w Quartets
Op. 127; 131; 132 & 135).
Reasonably closely recorded the sound quality is clear and detailed with an excellent balance. These Beethoven Quartets
are given performances of the highest quality by the Artemis. Revealing profound insights the Artemis ensure their interpretations have a spontaneous, almost live quality, which they combine with beautiful playing and splendid ensemble. Over the last few years I have seen the majority of the leading string quartets in recital. I will ensure it is not long before I see the Artemis perform live. This release is a sure-fire ‘Record of the Year’ for 2010.