Artemis Quartet delivers a night of memorable Beethoven

By David Fleshler

String quartets rarely inspire mid-concert standing ovations. But Berlin’s celebrated Artemis Quartet achieved one Wednesday from the Friends of Chamber Music crowd, a knowledgeable audience that has experienced many of the finest chamber ensembles the world has to offer.

The bravos began at Gusman Concert Hall after the first work on the program, Beethoven’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 18 No. 2. Although this is often considered the most classical of his quartets, a well-mannered work that looks back to Haydn, the Artemis ensemble played with such vividness and brilliance that the work seemed to grow in heft on the stage.

The most striking thing about the quartet is the technical mastery of the musicians. Technique and intonation was rock solid, and despite the fire and spontaneity of the playing, the sound was as unblemished as a performance on a compact disc. The ensemble tone was rich and broad, without a trace of the reedy quality that sometimes creeps into the performances of some small string ensembles.

The program gave us Beethoven’s musical biography through the string quartet, beginning with the genial form inherited from Haydn through a stormy middle-period work to the strange utterances of his last years.

In the Op. 18 No. 2 work, the quartet took an aggressive approach that made the work look forward to Beethoven’s later work than backwards to Haydn. The first-movement fugue was an eerie episode, and the last movement crackled with energy.

The Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, known as the Serioso, was given a dramatic performance that highlighted the work’s nervous energy. The cellist Eckart Runge played with a clipped, dramatic style that, while short on lush cello tone, worked well with this quartet.

Founded in 1989 and mentored by members of the Emerson, Juilliard and Alban Berg quartets, the Artemis ensemble has established itself as one of the leading chamber groups at a time many consider to be a golden age for string quartets. Although we live in an era of string quartet democracy, first violinist Natalia Prishepenko seemed unquestionably the leader, setting the pace with her big tone, assertive playing and emphatic gestures.

The last work was the monumental Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, one of the great late-period works that are still considered challenging to listeners and performers. The first movement, which can seem episodic in the hands of lesser musicians, came off as a tension-filled, forward-driving journey, with all the momentum moving toward the final, concluding climax. The slow movement was played in many sections without vibrato, creating a grave, otherworldly texture that intensified the movement’s impact.

The quartet has made a specialty of the works of Astor Piazzolla, last year releasing a disc of the tango specialist’s music. As an encore, they performed an excerpt from Piazzolla’s Suite del Angel, a pensive, sultry work that allowed the musicians to broaden their vibratos and play with a sensuality that had been absent in the more austere works of Beethoven.

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Thu Mar 4, 2010
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