The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet was founded in 1989 by four students on a crazy, singular 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 2011 box set – a previous WQXR Album of the Week – documents the Artemis’s Beethoven performances over the past fifteen years, taking us through all sixteen quartets with youthful panache and Germanic rigor. While there's much to admire in the Artemis's versions of the middle and late-period quartets, their versions of the early Quartets Nos. 1-6, Op. 18 particularly stand out, with equal doses of wit, warmth and sensitivity.
If the Tokyo Quartet plays these same works with greater polish, and the Takacs Quartet features a richer tone, the Artemis mines their psychological depths. 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.”
Discuss our choices and leave your own favorites in the comments box below.
Beethoven: Complete String Quartets
Available at Arkivmusic.com
Below: watch the Artemis perform the Third Movement of the String Quartet No. 15 Op. 132 in Paris’s Gare d'Austerlitz: