Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1 (1873) [32.03]
String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67 (1876) [36.06]
Artemis Quartet (Vineta Sareika (violin); Gregor Sigl (violin); Friedemann Weigle (viola); Eckart Runge (cello))
rec. 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany
WARNER ERATO 2564 612663 [68.24]

Experience has shown me that any new release from the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet is cause for celebration. Its stunning cycle of the Beethoven quartets on Virgin Classics/Erato bears testimony to this. This new Erato release sees the Artemis in two of Brahms’ set of three string quartets, masterworks of the repertoire yet overshadowed by quartets from fellow Austro-German composers Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

In the life of a string quartet having to replace a single member can be an extremely difficult process. So it must have been immensely challenging overcoming two personnel changes when in 2007 Gregor Sigl and Friedemann Weigle joined Artemis. On the evidence of the magnificent recordings released since the change the transition has been successful. Sadly since this album was recorded in 2014 the Artemis Quartet made a sad announcement on 7 July 2015: “Friedemann Weigle left us last weekend after a long battle with illness. With his death, Vineta Sareika, Gregor Sigl and Eckart Runge have lost a colleague, companion and friend; the music world has lost a wonderful, inspiring and extraordinary person, musician and teacher … The Artemis Quartet has asked for time to mourn, reflect and regroup. We will always remember the violist standing on the rightmost side of the stage, his feet firmly planted on the ground and his dark hair flowing with the music. Above all, the sound of his viola - so special and so moving - will remain with us for a very long time to come.”

The opening work on the set is the String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, which Brahms completed in 1873, a score dedicated to his friend Dr. Theodor Billroth of Vienna. Brahms agonised over the writing. It is known that he made several attempts in the genre before presenting the C minor. In fact he once claimed to have destroyed as many as twenty quartets. A common criticism levelled at the work is the disconcerting bleakness of the writing with too little emphasis placed on melody. I am interested in the viewpoint of two biographers: Walter Frisch who described the score as “an intense, mostly dark work” and Ivor Keys writing that, “Grittiness is certainly in evidence in this quartet.” In the extended first movement Allegro the Artemis convey playing that is resolute and full-bodied by turns contrasted with episodes of absorbing tenderness. The fractious quality of the relative gloom of the Allegro is dispelled by the warmly romantic lyricism of the Romanze: Poco Adagio which is interpreted with intensity and the deepest possible concentration. I relish this captivating performance from the Artemis in the moderately paced third movement. The agitated temperament of the writing is always present in a movement that feels as if it fuses a martial quality with a more whimsical dance-like character. The Allegro: Finale contains disquieting music with an undertow of hurt and anger. Artemis perform it with firm resolve and a sense of spontaneity.

Brahms completed his String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major in 1876. He dedicated it to his friend Professor Theodor Wilhelm Engelmann from the University of Utrecht. This good-humoured and more intimate score makes a marked contrast to the two earlier quartets. Biographer Walter Frisch described the B flat major score as “neoclassical in spirit, but ultra-sophisticated in its triumph.” The Artemis is in buoyantly rhythmic mood in the opening movement, marked Vivace and permeated with typical Brahmsian moodiness and occasional petulance. In the Andante, “a song without words” one cannot help but be impressed with the degree of calm communicated in this performance. The movement concludes with a wonderful instrumental Amen. Friedemann Weigle’s viola part takes centre-stage in the disconcerting third movement Agitato (Allegretto non troppo) - TrioCoda which strongly conveys tension and emotionally stormy waters. In the final movement, a theme and variations, the Artemis bring out the dancing and light-hearted character of the music. From 6:51 the players strengthen the tempo in a cheerful dash for the finishing line. This often reminds me of children scampering home from school; pausing only for the occasional breather.
This is convincing playing from the Artemis with performances that I will return to often. Nevertheless my primary recommendation is for the Borodin Quartet who delivers exceptional and compellingly expressive playing. The Borodin was recorded at Snape Maltings, Suffolk in 1990 and Teldec Studio, Berlin in 1993 and issued on Teldec. I also highly value the raptly expressive performances from the Emerson Quartet. Recorded in 2005-07 the venue for the Emerson was the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York and released on Deutsche Grammophon. In the String Quartet No. 1 I should single out the account from the Belcea for its enviable style and natural warmth. Splendidly recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk in 2003 the Belcea was issued on EMI Classics.

Erato's engineers deliver ice cool clarity and pleasing instrumental balance.

With this gratifying Brahms release the Artemis Quartet continues to impress, providing considerable colour and convincing emotional expression. The only drawback is the failure to include a performance of the Second String Quartet.

Michael Cookson

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