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Ionarts-at-Large: Artemis Splendor

While the Labeque Sisters occupied the main hall (Großer Saal) of the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Artemis Quartet was playing the very modestly filled smaller Mozart Saal for their November 19th recital of Haydn-Bartók-Brahms. Perhaps a commentary on the state of

audience-sophistication—but one hope’s not and points instead to the fact that the same Artemis-program was, optimistically, repeated in the same space the very next night.

From LISTEN Magazine (Winter 2012):
Adolescence (Op. 20)
With nearly seventy string quartets plus The
Seven Last Words
, Haydn left an enormous
body of work that traces the string quartet
from its inception to its perfection.
Although Haydn did not turn a wholly
new page with his six “Sun” Quartets, Op. 20
from 1772, the set is considered a major step
away from his previous work. His publisher
advertised Op. 20 as the works “with which
Haydn made his name,” and Ernst Ludwig
Gerber claims in his Composer Lexicon from
1812 that “starting with Op. 20, Haydn appears
in his full greatness as a composer of quartets.”
That is more or less what musicologist Donald
Tovey suggests, too; from Op. 20 onward, he
writes, “further progress is not progress in
any historical sense, but simply the difference
between one masterpiece and the next. [In
these quartets Haydn combines] the world of
opera with the eccentricities of C.P.E. Bach.”
The nickname “Sun Quartets” goes back
to Johann Julius Hummel’s edition, which
featured a sun on the title page.
These quartets are longer and weightier
than their predecessors, and three feature
fugues as final movements. Those fugues
were Haydn’s way of answering contemporary
criticism that suggested the trios and quartets
of several composers — Haydn lumped in
among them — were lightweight and ignorant
of counterpoint. So Haydn explicitly titled his
movements “Fugue on Two Subjects,” “Fugue
on Three Subjects” and “Fugue on Four
Subjects.” Haydn’s counterpoint skill surely
impressed the critics; what impresses us today
is the lightness and joy of these fugues. They
are not at all the “German,” heavy, terribly
rigorous, intellectually towering fugues that
might come to mind courtesy of Bach and
Beethoven. Haydn achieves gaiety, even when
he uses the grave “And with His stripes we are
healed” theme from Handel’s Messiah as his
fugue theme in the F-minor Quartet…
available at Amazon
J.Haydn, String Quartets op.20,
Quatuor Mosaïques

available at Amazon
G.Ligeti, String Quartets,
Artemis Quartet

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, String Quartets,
Artemis Quartet

Elegance married to wit

It started with a bit of complauding* the fact that Haydn (op.20/2) was used to open the recital. But such fine, accurate, and elegant Haydn it was, and so lovely and mellifluous, that my pet peeve of Haydn-up-front instead of making him the crowning glory of any recital or concert, was overcome within just a few bars. Without suggesting that there cannot be other perfectly valid ways of playing this music, theirs seemed a particular apt way of performing chamber music in general and Haydn in particular: The particularly well-articulated second movement’s unison opening was beautifully taken over by the cellist (Eckart Runge); the fourth movement was gracious and fleeting without daintiness.

The Artemis Quartet is one of those who embrace the charming gimmick of standing while playing (with the cellist brought up to height by means of pedestal)—like the Zehetmair and Brodsky Quartets. In the clothing department they’re mercifully more reticent than the clownfish-imitating Brodskys were, or the Pajama-and-gown-wearing Belcea Quartet (the other in-House quartet of the Konzerthaus) are. They make up for it with ostentatiously groomed hair. Not much of a blemish, admittedly, even if the results veer closely towards “Early-Anthony-Kiedis-meets-Dave-Grohl” (just barely avoiding “Dave Navarro”) in one case, and a triple-shampooed Luciano Pavarotti in the other.

How to rock a boat with gloved hands

Beyond the superficialities, there was Bartók’s Fifth Quartet to admire (which would have made an admirable curtain-raiser, too). Here the elegance that had been married to light, understated wit in Haydn was—equally effective—now forged to tenacity. Part of this “civilized ferocity” was not so much style and interpretative stance but simply accuracy under all conditions. In her dogged (and successful) pursuit of excellence throughout the first movement, first violinist (Vineta Sareika) made Hoffmann’s Olympia—equals in animation—look natural.  The second violin (Gregor Sigl) excelled in creating the silvery background eeriness inside the third movement. The pizzicato-opening of the 4th movement was notable for the beguiling playing of the thematic material by the viola (Friedemann Weigle), with ear-perking color and character to spare. The fifth movement—one of Bartók’s compellingly-catchiest—was famously furious.

After intermission, the Artemis Quartet meandered their way through the hectic opening of Brahms’ overwrought First String Quartet (1873), as if engaged in a collective finding process at the end of which might wait that elusive, difficult goal of a truly satisfactory Brahms string quartet performance. The Artemis Quartet went about this search—at first—with especially soft, flexible dynamic nuancing from which they lunged into the flurries of notes that Brahms dowsed his score with in regular intervals. Increasingly comfortable toward the conclusion of the first movement, the spirit of attaining Quartet-victory from the jaws of Brahms was carried over into the Romance poco adagio second movement (which can sound like a slowed-down Offenbach-Barcarolle (1864)).

After its share of dour touches, the Allegretto becomes the least ungrateful movement of op.51/1, with its folky touches: It raises hopes, treacherously, before the finale… which shows Brahms at his deliberately most humorless. It’s as if Brahms had wanted to browbeat us into accepting that string quartet-writing post-Beethoven was a mighty serious business and ensembles that wish to navigate this safely must deliberate to what extent they give into this desire and to what degree to resist it. The Artemis foursome stormed along that thin line with supple grace, right toward a most gratifying conclusion.

A thirst for good chamber music on my part had long needed quenching and this was a damn good way to do it. Most ironically it has made me hungry for more… and still more ironically I got more, too soon: A highly unnecessary but admittedly enchanting encore of the Adagio from Mendelssohn’s Second Quartet—without the slightest signs of Brahms-exhaustion—closed the recital on a note of affection.