October 12, 2004

Sexy Beethoven

Prize winning Artemis Quartett seduces the Kammermusiksaal


Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in f minor, op. 20 No. 5 »Sun Quartet«

Brett Dean
String Quartet No. 1 »Eclipse«

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in B flat major, op. 130 with the Great Fugue op. 133


Artemis Quartett
Natascha Prischepenko - Violine
Heime Müller - Violine
Volker Jacobsen - Viola
Eckart Runge - Violoncello

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Sexy Beethoven

Prize winning Artemis Quartett seduces the Kammermusiksaal

by Lydia Steier

The Artemis Quartet played the first of three programs this season at the Kammermusiksaal. This youthful foursome has been playing together for a decade since meeting at the conservatory in Lübeck. Since then, they have had a run of significant successes. They also actively commission new works, including Brett Dean's Artemis string quartet - the Australian composer's second, first performed at a concert for the BBC last summer. His first quartet was the second piece in Tuesday's concert.

At an in-house concert at Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann in September, violinists Natalia Prishchepenko, Heime Müller, violist Volker Jacobsen and cellist Eckart Runge played works by Dean, Beethoven (the Cavatina from Op. 130/133) and a fiery Piazzola. In addition to their unassailable playing, the highlight of the in-house concert was the easy visual dialogue they shared while performing - moving perfectly together as clearly rehearsed, sharing enigmatic grins during passages of particular delight, and very nearly grooving along when not playing. It was a truly electric experience, making one realize that even the greatest, most seamless recording of chamber music pales in the face of this quality of live performance.

This sense of ecstatic musical ease was far less evident in Tuesday's concert. Still, the Quartet's solid sound and sculptural phrasing (most rapturously demonstrated in the Beethoven) made for an enjoyable and occasionally surprising evening.

Artemis Quartett

The program opened with Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in F Major (Op. 20, No. 5). A rather straightforward (dare one say pedantic?) interpretation of the Allegro moderato included glimpses of nuance, especially in the halting chordal moments of exposition - which left one disappointed as each period ended in broad, no-frills cadences. Moments of muted, pensive, quasi-religious chorale playing in the first movement positively shimmered, while the majority of the Allegro moderato, Menuetto and Adagio lacked an aesthetic lightness necessary in delivering the color of this musical epoch. This textural oddness was magnified by a Menuetto which was played too slow to engender the lilt of the dance, and an Adagio that went just too fast to allow Prishchepenko's phrases to really sing.

The Finale, a fugue on two subjects, provided the first solid representation of the group's formidable strength. Played clearly and robustly with pinpoint rhythmic intensity, the movement featured a marvelous interplay between Prishchepenko and Jacobsen, delivering phrases both forceful and elegant. The round, dark sounds of both players matched perfectly, and would continue to delight the ear for the rest of the evening.

Violist Volker Jacobsen introduced the second piece of the program, Brett Dean's Eclipse. Drawing from literary inspirations, the quartet was written in reaction to the "Tampa Crisis" of 2001, when a boat full of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan languished in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia while the country's government (with a set of notoriously stringent immigration and asylum laws) and the UN bickered about what to do. The human drama at the heart of this power play is depicted programmatically by Dean throughout three unbroken movements.

Slow and spacious, secretive begins with the staggered entrance of each player on the same husky, long, straight tone. This strange effect is punctuated occasionally by sharp, woody bowstrokes that uncannily mimic the creaking of a ship's hull. From the literal and immediate sonic-pictorial narration of events and emotions, it seemed quite logical that Dean has composed for film. Jacobsen suggested that the use of pizzicato in Eclipse depicts the refugees' nervousness, but this is far too simplistic a description. In one remarkable moment, following a devastating solo moment of intense longing from Eckart Runge's cello, a scrambling, rushing tangle of pizzicato figures from all four perfectly encapsulated the agitated barking that occurs within a group of people overcome with panic. This moment died down, bit by bit, into muted, irregular pluckings - perhaps the resigned, quasi-apologetic whispers which follow such an outburst when all parties realize that neither action or escape are possible. This style of eloquent aural trickery suits the Artemis Quartet well. Discrete sections of cacophonic bridge bowing, mute playing (a wonderful way to evoke movement on water), pitch bending and rhythmic mimicry (in the form of an alarm) were executed with clarity and grace. The soul of Eclipse belongs to the cello part. Eckart Runge is an intense and athletic performer, whose instrument clearly plays the "lead" in this drama - weeping solitarily while the surf, winds and the tempers of his fellow refugees rage around him. The Epilogue features broad and delicious chords, often spread and bent into odd tonal queries. The members of Artemis held the audience in a lengthy silence after the quartet's last chord.

In remarks at their Dussmann appearance, the Artemis Quartet stated that in performing standard, well-recorded staples of the repertoire, they always try to find something new to say with the music, though not necessarily through radical changes in tempi and phrasing. Well. Artemis decided that the Beethoven's Opus 130/133 would be very, very sexy.

In the opening Adagio ma non troppo into Allegro, Artemis, led by Prishchepenko's rich, silky sound, delivered phrases in surprising emphatic order, creating the effect of a dizzying build which doesn't resolve, coyly turning the ear down rather than providing the good, early-romantic pounding we've come to expect. Even the slightest syncopation lilted and swayed attractively, dancing in a way sadly absent in the Haydn. Grounded, easy and confident: Artemis is clearly at home with Beethoven. The brief Presto was performed with a delightful push and pull that left one breathless, interspersed with furtive, whispering passages which crashed into decisive musical stomps. The skittering falling figures of the Andante con moto were executed with fantastic control by Müller and Jacobsen. The movement ended with a deceptively final flourish, generating hesitant applause.

The Danza Tedesca (Allegro assai) featured skewed and arhythmical sections delivered with eloquent athleticism. Every so often, Prishchepenko strayed sharp on heavier bowstrokes, which, along with moments in the Haydn Adagio, marked the only weakness in her performance for the evening. Her tone can range from urgently demanding to an otherworldly sigh. A deep and strikingly vocal sound, her playing reminds one of old, gritty, yet superbly expressive recordings heard on Victrolas in dim salons. Even in her most strident phrases, there is always a grain of pensive reserve. Her voluptuousness of tone and phrasing is perfectly framed in the begging, sighing first violin solo figure (played over quiet chordal accompaniment) toward the end of the Cavatina.

The Cavatina (Adagio molto espressivo) also highlights a particularly jarring acoustic issue within the group. Whereas Prishchepenko's sound is round and dark, Müller has a much more bright, present tone, a reverse of what might be expected in quartet playing. This disparity in sound makes the alternations in lead line between both violins in this movement a bit disorienting. In some figures played in close harmony in the Haydn, Müller's sound overwhelmed that of the dominant lyric line. In the Cavatina, Prishchepenko's sweeping, lyric entrances with viola and cello beneath created the inimitable sense of nostalgic transcendence - perhaps to some perfect moment in history, so sweet were these moments.

The seduction initiated by the Artemis Quartet in the first movement of the quartet, delayed by the well-orchestrated flirtation of the intervening sections, was emphatically consummated in the final movement: the epic Overtura (parts of which are more acoustically shocking than anything found in Eclipse). Their furious, crackling interpretation of the final con brio concluded with an appropriate flourish, earning instant cries of "Bravo".

The Artemis Quartet will perform in Berlin again on February 10 and May 30, 2005.