Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 18 No. 3; Op. 18 No. 5 & Op. 135

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Virgin
WORKS: String Quartets Op. 18 No. 3; Op. 18 No. 5 & Op. 135
PERFORMER: Artemis Quartet

In a typically imaginative piece of programming, the Artemis Quartet group the two least known – and reputedly most Classical – of the Op. 18 Quartets, with the last of the ‘late’ Quartets. In so doing, they highlight Janus-faced qualities of Op. 135. While the slow movement’s high-straining expression and use of silence anticipate (and almost certainly influenced) Mahler, the intimate, alert exchanges in the first movement recreate Classical era instrumental dialogue on a new plane of intensity. Similarly, the brilliant rhythmic games of the Scherzo echo similar features in the two Op. 18 Quartets, while at the same time leaving the impression that Stravinsky learnt a lot from this music. For the Artemis Quartet, the Beethoven of Op. 135 is recognisably the composer of Op. 18 Nos 3 and 5, while at the same time we sense how far he has travelled. And the experience is so rich in each case that it’s hard to think of any recent versions that better these.
True, they don’t quite match the Takács Quartet’s sense of ploughing a very deep furrow, expressively or intellectually. But neither do the Takács match the Artemis when it comes to understanding Beethoven’s unique mixture of playfulness and profundity. This is the ideal recording to play to anyone who thinks that Beethoven didn’t have a sense of humour. The hushed pizzicato coda of Op. 135 is delicious – a kind of ‘that’s all folks!’ that throws the seriousness of the slow movement and finale introduction into sublime relief. A couple of editorial changes to the harmony in the last two movements provoke thought. Stephen Johnson