The Artemis Quartet, based in Berlin, is an extraordinary ensemble. For one thing, they play on their feet – not seated, as you are used to seeing string quartets perform. The cellist gets to sit, but he sits on a platform, so his eyes can meet the eyes of his colleagues.
It makes for a different tableau on stage. And on Tuesday in Kleinhans Music Hall’s Mary Seaton Room, it took some getting used to.
Whatever they did, though, it worked. They began with the Quartet in B Flat, Op. 67, of Johannes Brahms, and showed right away how together they were. It almost doesn’t do it justice to say they were together. They were of one mind.
They could begin and end a phrase on the same nanosecond. And throughout the evening they showed they could do it not only naturally, but recklessly.
There would be a sharp silence, and then they would all start up, forte. All at the same instant. It never failed.
On first violin, Latvian violinist Vineta Sareika set the tone. Her style might not be as assertive as other first violinists you might have heard, but it has a kind of quiet authority. It projects. Sareika, by the way, embodied the drama of the music in her long black gown.
Her skirt had five flounces. Very striking, in a Victorian way. (Speaking of appearances – they count – the violist, Freidemann Weigle, and second violinist Gregor Sigl had longish Brahms-era hairstyles.)
The Brahms had many beautiful moments. There was one breathtaking interlude that Weigle playing pizzicato as the cellos and violins sounded sustained tones – a tremendous effect. The glorious Andante had soul. The final coda was a thrill.
After that came the Quartet, Op. 28, by Gyorgy Kurtag. Ensembles have a habit of throwing in the tough-to-take piece in the middle. They have a captive audience. They know no one will leave before hearing the final piece, which in this case was Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet.And so everyone had to sit through this Kurtag. Cellist Eckart Runge did a wonderful job of introducing the 15-minute piece. He put you in the frame of mind to love it.
But much as you could admire the piece on an intellectual level – I was in awe of the work involved, and the technique and togetherness displayed – it was pretty opaque. It did, however, end on a high note, as the piece melted right before it ended into a lovely counterpoint.
The audience gave it polite applause. Interestingly, this piece was performed once before on the series – by the Brentano Quartet, in 1997. I wonder how it went over then.
Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet ended the evening on a wonderful note.
It was only in this piece that I wondered if they should be seated, not standing. I worried the standing set them apart and detracted from the intimacy.
Schubert is such intimate music, conceived to be played among friends. However, as one friend suggests, the fact that the musicians played on their feet allowed the audience to see the exertion involved. And if the musicians are more comfortable that way, so much the better.
The Schubert displayed the Artemis Quartet’s elaborate palette of dynamics. You felt the shifting colors and keys, with everything smooth and in sync. The heartrending themes rang out.
The slow movement was, of course, the highlight. Runge, the cellist, did a great job of articulating Death’s weirdly seductive melody, first pizzicato, then in a songful melody line.
The other musicians fluttered and buzzed around him. Schubert achieved some strange effects: For a minute, you heard shades of the Kurtag. The end, when the ensemble mirrors the piano’s ending in the Schubert song, was breathtakingly delicate.
The last movement had a seamless excitement that brought the large crowd to its feet.