In my experience listening to string quartets and attending quartet concerts, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the greatest that I can imagine any foursome capable of displaying. To wit, the original Budapest Quartet of the 1950s and ’60s.
No group I’ve heard since has delved as deeply into the great quartet compositions’ musicality nor produced their vibratos in perfect sync on held harmonies — until I was exposed to last Wednesday’s Artemis Quartet at the fifth Ensemble Music Society-sponsored concert of the season. This time, I was captivated by finally hearing another “greatest” quartet — though the Artemis’ repertoire choice was a bit less enthralling.
Like the Hugo Wolf Quartet of last month, the Artemis is a German product, launching in 1994 from the Lubeck Musikhochschule. Its players include violinists Natalia Prishepenko and Gregor Sigl, violist Friedman Weigle and cellist Eckart Runge. Any one of these players could outplay many touring string-playing soloists appearing before today’s public.
The Artemis opened with a virtually unknown work, the String Quartet, Op. 88.6 of Nikolai Kapustin, a 70-year-old Russian who’s never become a known figure in 20th century music. All four movements are essentially composed jazz — and skillfully done to boot. In fact, the final movement is a jazz fugue, all the pieces fitting nicely and the players rendering them masterfully.
Next came the most fascinating work on the program, Mandares for string quartet by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher (b. 1963), a contemporary composition that stirred throughout in the Artemis’ hands. Opening and closing with ethereal high register writing next to the strings’ bridges, its four movements surveyed modernist and tonal idioms — the latter in C major and A minor — with excellent craft and blatant emotion. And once again, with the Artemis players at the helm, much serene beauty manifested itself.
Ending the program was Tchaikovsky’s Second of his three string quartets, that in F, Op. 11. Not a chamber composer per se, the famous Russian’s last two quartets show careful craftsmanship while his First highlights his supreme gift at melody, therefore preempting the final two. Here, we heard the Artemis providing a subtly nuanced, beautifully played Andante with an intense ending, standing out from the other three movements, though all were played as well as I’ve ever heard them.
For an encore, the Artemis partially made up for the lack of a local performance of the Tchaikovsky First Quartet by offering his Andante cantabile from it, containing one of the master’s supreme and supremely famous melodies with a wistful countersubject to match.
John Failey, please bring the Artemis back to us as soon as you can.