Founded in 1989 and Berlin-based, the Artemis Quartet - a lady leader and three gents - instantly came over as warm, gutsy and alive in tone as they pitched into the bucolic opening triplets of Brahms String Quartet No 3 at the Wigmore Hall.
Indeed, there were occasional moments when intonation slightly bent under intensity of expression. Yet, in gentler transitions of the slow movement and the finale variation with pizzicato cello, they proved capable of the most pellucid texture. Best of all was their natural command of the longer continuities in a work that can too easily sound sectional. The sweep and surge of the intermezzo-like third movement, built round its plaintive viola line, was particularly impressive.
It needed to be, for the second half of the programme comprised possibly the most surging string quartet in the entire repertoire. Schoenberg was 30 when he launched into his vast String Quartet No 1 in a mood of extreme excitement (claiming that he went for a walk each morning and came home with another 80 bars complete in his head). The resulting 45-minute string quartet is about the longest and certainly most unremittingly inventive between late Beethoven and Elliott Carter's String Quartet No 1.
Although Schoenberg was still using key signatures, his style was evolving rapidly, lurching between relatively clear tonal patches by way of a churning chromaticism to unearthly, near-atonal sonorities. Again, though it combines the traditional movement forms, one hears it more as an abstract music drama impelled by the incessant interplay of many melodies and motifs: passionate outpourings, consoling responses, skittish humour, eerie forebodings, turbulent climaxes and, finally, an ineffable sunset calm.
No wonder this supremely demanding work is so infrequently attempted. Yet the Artemis must have played it often for they sounded completely at one with the music, unfailingly inflecting and characterising the thematic ebb and flow, and pacing the whole structure to perfection.
Here, then, was a packed and rapturous audience for the rarest, most demanding Schoenberg. Who says classical music is dead?Reuse content