WORKS: String Quartets: in B flat, Op. 18/6; in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
PERFORMER: Artemis Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 694 5840
Although the recordings featured on the double CD were made between 1998 and 2002 and first released on the Ars Musici in conjunction with West German Radio, it’s hardly surprising that Virgin Classics should have chosen to reissue them as part of the Artemis Quartet’s ongoing Beethoven cycle.
In almost every respect they offer extremely dynamic and incisive playing in excellent sound. One really senses the tangible feeling of excitement as the mysterious chromatic chords in the introduction to Op. 59 No. 3 are suddenly resolved with unequivocal tonality in the exhilarating projection of the ensuing Allegro vivace.
Likewise, the fugal finale, delivered at a breathtakingly fast pace, evinces considerable variety of character, occasionally playful and humorous and at other times percussively aggressive.
Some may find their approach to the sforzando marks in the second movement a little mannered, but once again the players embrace the elegiac mood of the music with sensitivity whilst at the same time maintaining a flowing tempo that takes full account of Beethoven’s instruction to steer a judicious course between an Andante and an Allegretto.
There’s much to admire, too, in their rendition of Op. 18 No. 2. Perhaps the opening movement seems a bit brusque, lacking some of the Mozartian charm and elegance one would normally associate with early Beethoven. However the Adagio cantabile is beautifully expressive and in the scherzo and finale the Artemis once again project a similarly feisty approach to that of their third Razumovsky Quartet.
In their performances of the Opp. 131 and 132, the Artemis emphasise the other-worldliness of Beethoven’s inspiration in the non-vibrato opening of the A minor, as well as the modernity of his writing exemplified in the extraordinary sul ponticello textures in the fifth movement scherzo of the C sharp minor.
At the same time I don’t feel they quite maintain the same degree of spiritual intensity throughout the Heilige Dankgesang of Op. 132 as the Takács on Decca, my benchmark version for this particular work.
Any doubts about the Artemis’s approach to late Beethoven however are completely dispelled in their latest recording featuring the two quartets in B flat major. The sound is more immediate than in their earlier releases, and the change of personnel to the second violin and viola seems to have galvanised the quartet to play with even greater urgency and imagination than before.
Certainly their account of Op. 130 must rank as one of the finest ever recorded, and their decision to perform the work with the Grosse Fuge as the rightful finale is fully vindicated by the overwhelming power and audacity of the interpretation. Erik Levi