Artemis Quartett

Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 18/3, Op. 18/5 & Op. 135

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Berlin's Artemis Quartet, not exactly youthful but placed by the Virgin Classics label in the midst of hip design elements in the graphics of this release, has entered an extremely crowded field of Beethoven string quartet cycles; this album is the second release in the cycle. You enter it with both high expectations and high demands, and for the pair of quartets from Beethoven's early Op. 18 set of six, only the first of these is fulfilled. Everything is technically there from this well-established group, and the lyrical, delicate lines of first violinist Natalia Prischepenko are a pleasure to listen to, but fundamentally these are competent readings like dozens of others. The String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, is something else again. This comic piece, Beethoven's last quartet, contains a good deal of music that merits the adjective "bizarre." Plenty of performances exaggerate this aspect with heavy emphasis on, say, the abrupt drop of the music to the flat seventh E flat in the second movement, a Vivace scherzo, or in the finale, where two figures are marked by Beethoven in the score with the words "Muss es sein?" (Must it be?) and "Es muss sein!" (It must be!). Here and in the opening movement two sharply disparate figures are jammed together over the course of the movement with the utmost ingenuity. It won't do to play it straight, but the oddness of the music comes through without playing it violently, either, and the Artemis Quartet finds the happy medium. This group's live performances of the String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130, have won wide acclaim, and it may be that they're that rare phenomenon, a string quartet that makes Beethoven's notoriously difficult late quartets a specialty. On the evidence here, that's cause for celebration.

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