The Artemis Quartet Perform Brahms String Quartets

String Quartets Nos 1 & 3

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Erato
ALBUM TITLE: The Artemis Quartet Perform Brahms String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 3
PERFORMER: Artemis Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 2564612663

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From Brahms’s expression markings you’d probably suspect this was a composer with an allergy to extremes. This is especially true of the chamber music. Dynamics louder than forte are rare, restraining non troppos or un pocos fairly common. And yet when the Artemis Quartet plunge into the first movement of Quartet Op. 51 No. 1 as though it were a truly Beethovenian tragic allegro it doesn’t feel that they’re straining the issue or in any other way distorting the essence. It’s tremendously exciting to start with, but part of that excitement derives from the players’ strong grasp of each movement as a whole structure. In other words, Brahms the so-called ‘Classical Romantic’ may feel more Romantic in each passing moment, but in the background classical objectivity still holds.

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The emotional palette is broad: surging intensity is balanced emotionally by tenderness, delicate sensitivity, and in Quartet No. 3 Op. 67 even by touches of humour. But the balance is architectural too. It may be a slightly partial view of Brahms, but it’s hard to deny that the cap fits, that performances in which this music speaks so effectively  and so consistently are infrequent, and that questions of whether either work represents ‘real’ quartet writing have rarely seemed less relevant. Ultimately I think the Artemis Quartet’s Sturm und Drang approach suits the First String Quartet better than the lighter more playful Third, but it’s still striking how compelling and enjoyable the latter is – especially the rhythmic games in the first movement. The recording is suitably immediate without loss of overall sound perspective – well suited to the playing in fact. Stephen Johnson