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CD Feature/ Artemis Quartet: "Beethoven - String Quartets op.59/2 & 18/4"

img  Tobias

Contemporary concert organisors often seem to assume that classical music, just like a PC, is in constant need of an update. The members of the Artemis Quartet, however, are actively defying demands for electronically remixing Mozart, digitally polishing up Schubert or presenting Beethoven in an all new, re-arranged 21st century version. It is a consequential attitude which may not turn them into the darlings of trendsetting publications or so-called open-minded genre-hoppers. But it has paradoxically made their renditions of these two string quartets all the more up to date.

Part of the paradox can be explained by the progressive nature of these works. At the time they were written, both the Opus 18 and 59 sets of quartets were deemed difficult, documenting the gradual development of the format from a pleasant chambermusical pastime into an ambitious artistic encounter and a serious battlefield for pushing innovative musical ideas. If only for its expansive shape, this is all the more apparent in the string quartet opus 59 no. 2, whose two opening movements alone take up almost 25 minutes, with suspenseful pulsations acting as harbingers of Glass’ean rhythmics and long exhalation phases toying with the notions of sound and silence long before John Cage came around.

The string quartet opus 18 No. 4, however, seems thoroughly more traditional when listened to from a distance of over 200 years. The touch of Haydn is still apparent in the feathery “Andante” and the subtle surge of the ensuing “Minwetto”, whose plaintive passion always seems a little restrained by painful reticence. As skilfully executed and demanding as these compositions may be and as much as minor themes are gaining ground on the scintillating major triumphs, they are equally infused with a sense of carefree exultation, which would usually be deemed naive in a time like today, which has come to accept that every victory comes at a price.

This is exactly where the interpretation of the Artemis Quartet sets in. While never ignoring the historical background of these pieces, they allow their perfectly contemporary personalities to submerge the noble notes that ancient ink has blotted. Suddenly, these works are beginning to question themselves. The massive “Allegro” of the string quartet opus 59 no.2 turns into a meditation on the trustworthiness of its themes, a naked struggle for safety and survival in a world which seemed to suggest everything would eventually fall into place. And the abbrasive strokes of the “Allegretto” sound inspired by fiery Czardas-passion and a destructive urban gruffiness alike.

Things are not what they seem here and yet the ensemble isn’t unnecessarily trying to complicate things either. After all, there are enough inbuilt issues in interpreting classical music in the new millenium already: The polarity between one’s own perspective and the views of the composer, between historical evidence and the absoluteness of the work as well as between the absoluteness of the work and its functional aspects. What makes their renditions stand out is the fact that the Artemis Quartet refuses to regard these contradictions as a force of evil but rather as a source of inspiration. And no remixes or updates are required for them to be up to the task.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Artemis Quartet
Homepage: EMI Classical

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