Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 (1798-1800) [28:41]
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1822-25) [36:19]
Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischepenko (violin); Gregor Sigl (violin); Friedemann Weigle (viola); Eckart Runge (cello))
rec. 19-2 May, 29-30 June, 1 July 2010, Teldex Studio, Berlin. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6286590 [60:05]

I was hugely impressed with the last offering from the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet. Their wonderful recording of Beethoven’s String Quartets, Op. 18/6 and Op. 130 together with the Große Fuge, Op. 133 will be one of my 2010 ‘Records of the Year’.

The Artemis is now up to number five in their projected cycle of the complete Beethoven string quartets for Virgin Classics.

For those readers new to the Artemis they got together in 1989 at music school in Lübeck. The official start was in 1999 with a recital at the Berlin Philharmonie. To have to replace a single quartet member is difficult in itself. So it must have been extremely challenging overcoming two changes in personnel when in 2007 Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigle joined the Artemis. On the evidence of the splendid recordings released since then the transition has clearly been highly successful.

Both of these works came about owing to the patronage of members of the Bohemian and Russian nobility. Dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz the op. 18 set of six string quartets was composed in 1798-1800. The String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 was actually the second to be written and Beethoven heavily revised it before publication in 1801. The first of the famous late quartets to be written was the op. 127 String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major. The score bears a dedication to Prince Nikolai Galitzin.

The Artemis performs the opening movement of the F major Quartet with verve and a considerable yearning intensity. Inspired it seems by the tomb scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the extended Adagio has an abundance of human warmth with a serious inner intensity. Playing of reckless abandon combines with the unsettling chromaticism of the capricious Scherzo. The Artemis play the boisterous Finale with a compelling intensity.

A more uncompromising and often daunting proposition for some listeners is the late Quartet in E flat major. In the hands of the Artemis the opening movement flows relentlessly like a precipitous stream. Poignant and intense the Adagio is a set of variations and coda which is here given a searching and affecting interpretation. A stark contrast is provided by the shifting moods of the edgy and flickering Scherzo. Infused with a marvellous dance-like spirit the Finale is restless and often breathless music controlled splendidly by the Artemis.

Credit is due to the audio production team providing close and vividly clear sound of the highest quality. These are winning Beethoven accounts by the Artemis played with exhilarating directness and steely power. Their dynamic contrasts are broad without ever interrupting the flow. Beautifully played the slow movements are expressive and perceptively interpreted. The Artemis demonstrates a remarkable rapport with impressive technical prowess and flawless intonation.

Michael Cookson

Remarkable rapport, impressive technical prowess and flawless intonation.