Artemis Quartet brings clarity and concentrated emotion to Zankel Hall

Wed Apr 11, 2018 at 1:23 pm
The Artemis Quartet performed Tuesday night at foofoo. Photo: Nikolaj Lund

The Artemis Quartet performed Tuesday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Nikolaj Lund

The main trend in concert programming these days seems to be thematic construction—building around a symbolic idea, or around a single composer or era. To be sure, an evening of nothing but Schubert can have its rewards, but often just as compelling is a set of pieces with seemingly no connection, chosen on their own merits or indeed because they provide a sharp contrast to each other.

The Artemis String Quartet on Tuesday night gave just such a concert in Zankel Hall. Their richly varied program, which touched early Beethoven on one extreme and Bartók on the other, before ending in the middle with Schumann, read like a quick survey of the chamber rep—and showed off the group’s exceptional versatility with superior playing in each style.

Early Beethoven is too often played with a tiptoeing restraint that makes it feel obnoxiously mannered, trading the vitality of the music for affected grace. Artemis’s take on Op. 18, no. 3 had warmth, character, and wit, showing playfulness in the interchanges of the parts in the first movement. A hint of good-natured roughness occasionally crossed the line into sloppiness, but on the whole this was exceptional playing, from the uncomplicated sunniness of the Allegro to the raucous energy of the closing Presto.

Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 seemed to come out of an entirely different universe, yet it was performed with no less conviction. The Artemis players proved to be perfect guides through the deep mists of Bartók’s writing, never losing track of the opening Moderato’s wandering melody, and finding moments of acrid intensity that seemed to rise out of the steam. The second movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, was fierce, at least as malicious as capricious. A persistent weariness hung over the complex layers of emotion in the Lento finale, where long silences conveyed rich meaning.

The final offering of the evening, Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1, offered a Romantic middle ground, albeit somewhat closer in both chronology and substance to Beethoven than to Bartók. The players showed a strong Romantic spirit in the rhapsodic Introduzione, followed by peppery excitement in the Scherzo. Artemis’s ability to maintain tight execution and torrid energy side by side was a theme of the evening.

They paid keen attention to the emotional life of the music in the Adagio, bringing out the contrasts between warm sighs and stormy passion. There is a sense in Artemis’s playing that no moment is wasted. In all the music they performed Tuesday night, the overall sense of the piece could not have been clearer, communicating a plan and a grasp of structure to the audience. Yet there was delight in the details, as well, each gesture or phrase executed with purpose and playing a role in the larger composition.

The Artemis musicians offered one encore, in memory of Michael Tree, the great American violist who died two weeks ago at the age of eighty-four. Their choice could hardly have been more appropriate: a lovely, pining little Bach chorale, delivered with breathtaking simplicity.


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