Since signing to Virgin (now Erato) the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet has recorded some superb accounts of core repertoire including one of the finest Beethoven cycles of recent times.
Brahms supposedly wrote some 20 quartets that ended up in the bin before the rigorously self-critical composer felt ready to publish the three extant examples. Each inhabits its own sound world and are tough nuts to crack; the dramatic intensity of the first and the sly playfulness of the third can both easily turn turgid if slathered with heavy-handed Romantic excess, so Artemis proves to be ideal exponents with their modernist sensibility tempered by warmth of expression and miraculous variety of tonal colour and dynamics.
The opening movement of the First Quartet is perfectly judged, veering between nervous energy and sweet repose but with an eye always on the architecture so that the ebbing conclusion seems an inevitable consequence rather than a mere petering out. The Romanze is breathtakingly beautiful, drawn with the gentlest brushstrokes of tone; the players’ telepathic ensemble playing at the lowest dynamic level is a wonder to behold. Their variety of vibrato and colour illuminates the Scherzo with half-lights and veiled tone evoking a half-remembered dream so that the opening mood returns with a jolt as they leap and thrust through the finale.
The Third Quartet’s Vivace is delightfully light on its feet while the Andante’s lovely cantilena is sung with heartfelt sincerity. The rhythmic chicanery of the third movement is deftly negotiated before the Finale’s amiable stroll steadily gains momentum with the subtlest adjustments of pace. This is chamber music-making at the most exalted level with hyper-alert musicians communing as one and making us listen intently. Inner-voices and details emerge with clarity yet without distracting from the musical line. Their dynamic range is huge but used with restraint; the scale is intimate and private rather than grand and public.
As usual, the engineers have captured the group in state-of-the-art sound with ideal perspective and resonance; the delicious texture of rosin on string or the thrum of a chord hanging in the air is a sensual delight. Having so relished the vibrant expressive projection of Friedemann Weigle’s viola playing in the past it was a sad shock to note the dedication of this album to his passing away last July at the age of 53. May he rest in peace.