Beethoven: String Quartets No.1

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quartets No. 1 in F, Op. 18 No. 1; No. 12 in E flat, Op. 127
PERFORMER: Artemis Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 628 6590

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As is evident from previous recordings in their ongoing cycle, the Artemis Quartet approach Beethoven’s Op. 18 set not as the apogee of 18th-century Viennese Classicism, but rather as transitional works that point forward to the composer’s middle period.

This emphasis is made plain in their beautifully engineered account of Op. 18 No. 1, especially in the slow movement which here is presented as a deeply-felt lament whose impact is intensified by employing the widest possible dynamic range and by emphasising its element of mystery through the extremely effective use of non vibrato.

Elsewhere in this work, however, the playing seems a bit too hard driven for my taste. The finale for example is delivered with tremendous energy and verve, the ensemble miraculously transparent and incisive. But in seeking to drive the music forward, the players miss the playfulness, elegance and charm that make the performance by the Takács Quartet so exceptional.

Such features play a much less obvious role in the late quartets and here the Artemis seem able to get to the heart of the matter more convincingly. Certainly they negotiate the tricky changes of tempo in the first movement of Op. 127 with great fluidity, provide an expressive yet poised view of the slow movement, and invest the Scherzo with suitably rustic verve and rhythmic dynamism.

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At the same time, the Takács Quartet (Decca), applying a more vocally-orientated approach to the melodic line, probe somewhat deeper, finding greater spiritual dimensions in the score especially in the meltingly beautiful slow movement. Erik Levi