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Artemis Foul?

Ionarts welcomes guest contributor Lindsay Heller, who offers this review of a concert we had planned to attend but could not.

Artemis String Quartet, image by Hertha Hurnaus

Other Articles:

Allan Kozinn, Mozart and Bartók Find a Lot to Talk About (New York Times, April 23), review of April 21 concert at Zankel Hall, New York City

Daniel Ginsberg, Artemis: Turning Up The Volume (Washington Post, April 30)
Sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), the concert on Wednesday, April 27, given by Germany's young Artemis String Quartet, in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, is not unlike others in that it certainly had its bright moments, but with the good definitely came the bad.

Their opening selection, Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet in A Minor, op. 13, sounded (and looked) over-rehearsed. First violinist Heime Müller not only proved that he is still a bit too young for the responsibility of leading a quartet but also seemed to suffer from what some of my fellow violinists and I like to call "soloist wannabe syndrome": he consistently played too loud and often made it seem as if the other members of the ensemble only existed to accompany him. Some of the more beautiful second violin and viola lines hardly had the chance to shine through the overbearing first violinist's performance, and for music as rich (and at times as delicate) as Mendelssohn's, there needed to have been more sensitivity in the overall delivery.

Although the majority of the Mendelssohn lacked dynamic contrast and sounded unbalanced, there was one moment of glory: the Allegro di molto section of the third movement (Allegretto con moto). For the first time that evening, the quartet was incredibly impressive. One of their strengths seems to lie in immaculate bow control, therefore allowing great crispness and clarity in the delivery of the rapid sixteenth-note passages, and finally showing the audience how the parts in a quartet should interact with one another. Unfortunately, the beautiful Adagio ending of the piece was just too loud, and that ultimately prevented that feeling of intense emotional release one can achieve after becoming intimate with Mendelssohn's music.

Their performance and interpretation of Bartók's String Quartet No. 2 was by far the highlight of the evening. (I honestly think that the variable that made the biggest difference was having the violinists switch parts. Placing Natalia Prischepenko at the helm of this ensemble was a very wise artistic decision.) The entire piece was absolutely marvelous, and I finally began to see what others have seen in this group: a great sense of musicality, wonderful bow control, and superb articulation. Although young, all four members displayed great sensitivity not only for the notes, but for each other, actually working as a chamber ensemble and not against themselves. After the somewhat disappointing Mendelssohn, it pleased me to see them paying close attention to dynamics, seeing as Bartók's often hauntingly beautiful use of dissonances can only achieve their rightful power if the players actually do what the composer intended. Noteworthy Bartók is not something that can be achieved by anyone: it takes careful practice, confident performers, and most of all, a thorough understanding of the music.

All three movements were executed with brilliance, but the second movement was absolutely riveting from start to finish. It was unfortunate, however, when an elderly gentlemen felt the need to leave his third-row seat and walk up the flight of stairs to exit the Terrace Theater in between the second and third movements. What was supposed to be a few seconds' break for tuning turned into a minute-plus pause that obviously angered the ensemble, but their frustration was justified: after all the energy and tension created in a brilliant Allegro, the long pause robbed everyone of the aura the music had so far created. Instead of directly going into the final Lento movement, the haunting, dissonant, bleak, yet interestingly beautiful third movement appeared to be somewhat bland and almost boring.

Continuing on with Robert Schumann's Quartet No. 3, seeing Natalia Prischepenko on first violin basically put my heart as ease. The overall performance of the piece was quite pleasing, with the Assai agitato and Tempo risoluto being the most exciting and well played of the four movements. Although the interpretation of the opening Andante did not seem like Schumann to my ears, their interpretation evolved into something fairly wonderful that made it seem as if the strings were instead singing one of the composer's noted Lieder. The last movement, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess: prior to beginning the Lento, cellist Eckart Runge noticeably tuned his C string flat, and throughout the movement there was entirely too much viola. It appeared as if violist Volker Jacobsen and second violinist Müller were in some sort of duel again for who can play the loudest and most agitated once they reached the second a tempo section. Both Jacobsen and Müller played the train-like dotted eighth/sixteenth note rhythm incorrectly; however, the problems with counting could not hold a flame to the fact that the two men added overbearing accents on each dotted eighth note, which did not belong there in the first place. After the major increase in volume, the quartet unfortunately had a lot of trouble coming down to a reasonable dynamic, and what was supposed to be a soft and delicate ending wound up being a little too fast and like much of what came before it, just too loud.

The audience was treated to a surprise in the quartet's choice of an encore: a partial transcription by violinist Müller (who, I think, doubles as a Joshua Bell impersonator on weekends) of Mendelssohn's coveted piano work, Lieder ohne Worte. Anyone who has heard this on the piano in the hands of a true artist knows that words cannot explain the beauty Mendelssohn managed to convey through music. Much to my dismay, it seemed as if Müller merely wrote this to allow him to be seen and heard one last time before leaving the stage, and I know the smirk on his face as he nearly giggled through it was not appreciated by some of us in the audience.

Despite their shortcomings in this performance, it certainly seems as if the young blood in this quartet has a lot of talent and hopefully many years ahead to show the world just that. I think this concert displayed the dangers of over-preparation and how it can almost destroy the brilliance and power behind a program such as this. All in all, the Artemis String Quartet shows great potential for the future, and as is the case with many young artists, greater wisdom will come with experience.

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