The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet was founded in 1989 by four students on a crazy mission: to master Beethoven’s Op. 131 String Quartet, one of the most challenging and unconventional pieces in the standard quartet literature. It was downhill from there. The group has gone on to establish a residency at the Beethoven House in Bonn, win industry awards for their Beethoven recordings, tour the Beethoven quartets in 2010-11 and even play the composer’s music in a crowded Paris train station (see below).
A new box set documents the Artemis’s Beethoven performances over the past fifteen years, taking us through all sixteen quartets and offering playing of the highest standard throughout.
Beethoven poured himself into his string quartets in a way that he did with no other genre. They span three distinct periods in his life, and range from the spunky, Haydn-esque Op. 18 set to the introspective late quartets, written when the composer sought to come to turns with his increasingly fragile physical and mental health.
The Artemis appears particularly interested in the psychological nuances of this music. In the liner notes, cellist Eckart Runge recalls studying Beethoven’s nearly illegible manuscripts and noting how the “tremendous emotionality of the music leaps out of these pages in ways that are immediate and visible.” The Artemis’s own history has been occasionally tumultuous: In 2007 two members of the group left – one for personal reasons, the other for a serious arm impairment – and were replaced by the violinist Gregor Sigl and the violist Friedemann Weigle.
This set captures the ensemble in both iterations and it’s a testament to its strong artistic profile that one never senses a marked difference in its sound or style since the personnel change (four of the performances on this set are new; the rest are reissues). Indeed, the playing is largely exuberant, yet also alive to the softest gradations; tempos are well chosen and finely sustained; and the Artemis throws itself into the Grosse Fugue like it's nobody’s business.
Below: watch the Artemis perform the Third Movement of the String Quartet No. 15 Op. 132 in Paris’s Gare d'Austerlitz:
Beethoven: Complete String Quartets
Available at Arkivmusic.com