Artemis Quartet
Barber / Britten / Schubert

LAC / Teatrostudio, Lugano, 2019-03-15

4-star rating

2019-03-20 — Original posting


Artemis Quartet, Lugano, 2019-03-15 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Artemis Quartet, Lugano, 2019-03-15 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Introduction

This was the third time that I had the chance of attending the “String Quartet Weekend” (Weekend Quartetti d’Archi) in the “Teatrostudio” in the LAC in Lugano: a series of three string quartet recitals in a long weekend (Friday 20:30h, Saturday 20:30h, Sunday afternoon 17:00h). As the last concert is in the afternoon, visitors from my area (Zurich) only need to book two nights at a hotel (as concerts in Lugano in general start at 20:30h only, there is usually no chance of getting home on the same day using public transport). The previous instances for me were

This year’s instance was over 1 month earlier, with three concerts 2019-03-15 – 2019-03-17. The venue was still the same, the Teatrostudio, a small, box-shaped room in the remotest corner of the LAC building complex. There is space for only a small audience of 60 – 80. As the artists perform at the center of the long axis, the visibility is excellent, the distances between listeners and the artists are small, from a few meters up to 10m at most.

Outline / Program

The Artists: The Artemis Quartet

To me, this opening concert was also the first opportunity to witness the Artemis Quartet (see also Wikipedia) in a live performance. At the same time, it also was the first occasion to hear them in a recent / newer configuration. But let me explain.

This year, 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the Artemis Quartet—an ensemble that for years I regarded one of the best, at least in Europe. Some of this is also reflected in my extensive comparison posts on the Beethoven string quartets (see the above gallery of CD covers). However, one should keep in mind that such judgement refers to a moving target. For one, of course, an ensemble’s performances evolve over time. Moreover, it is rare for such chamber music formations to retain their original configuration for 30 years or more, and the Artemis Quartet is no exception.

The Ensemble’s History

The ensemble was founded 1989 in Lübeck (Germany), but was since moved its home base to Berlin. The original configuration featured the following artists:

  • Wilken Ranck, violin; Isabel Trautwein, violin; Volker Jacobsen, viola; Eckart Runge, cello (*1967, Heidelberg)

That initial configuration only lasted 2 years —

  • 1991: Wilken Ranck, violin; Heime Müller, violin; Volker Jacobsen, viola; Eckart Runge, cello
  • 1994: Natalia Prishepenko, violin (*1973, Russia); Heime Müller, violin; Volker Jacobsen, viola; Eckart Runge, cello
  • 2007: Natalia Prishepenko, violin; Gregor Sigl, violin (Augsburg); Friedemann Weigle, viola (*1962, Berlin); Eckart Runge, cello
  • 2012: Vineta Sareika, violin (*1986, Latvia); Gregor Sigl, violin; Friedemann Weigle, viola (died 2015); Eckart Runge, cello
  • 2016: Vineta Sareika, violin; Anthea Kreston, violin (Chicago, USA); Gregor Sigl, viola; Eckart Runge, cello

The ensemble has already announced the next, major change in personnel, involving the departure of both the most recent addition, Anthea Kreston, as well as the last remaining founding member, Eckart Runge:

  • 2019: Vineta Sareika, violin (*1986, Latvia); Suyoen Kim, violin (*1987, Münster, Germany); Gregor Sigl, viola (Germany); Harriet Krijgh, cello (*1991, The Netherlands)

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the program announcement featured the 2016 configuration (names and picture) in the header, but the body of the announcement talked about the new, 2019 configuration. According to the ensemble’s own Website, the official change-over to the new (2019) configuration will take place in May/June 2019 only, in connection with a tour. And indeed, the concert featured the 2016 configuration of the ensemble. At least for Switzerland, this may well have been the last opportunity to witness the ensemble in this composition.

One of the Artemis Quartet’s declared goals was and is that they aimed at retaining their specific characteristics and identity. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful at that.

Instruments

According to the ensemble’s Website, Vineta Sareika plays on a 1793 instrument by Giuseppe Guadagnini (1736 – 1805), the son of the famous Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786).Anthea Kreston, performs on an instrument from around 1710 by Carlo Antonio Testore, Milan.Eckart Runge performs on a 1595 instrument by the brothers Hieronymus (Girolamo) and Antonio Amati, Cremona.

Setting, etc.

Within the Weekend Quartetti d‘Archi, the Friday concerts seem to be at a slight disadvantage—they tend to have a somewhat smaller audience. Still, the Artemis Quartet managed to mobilize around 60 people, which made the venue look 90% full (however, when more tickets are sold, the organizers would increase the number of chairs, up to 80 – 90 total, if needed).

As I wanted to take some pictures, my wife and I took seats in the last row, in the right-hand side block. All images in this post are my own (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


Barber: String Quartet, op.11 (1936) — II. Molto adagio

Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981) composed his String Quartet, op.11 in 1935 – 1936, originally for the Curtis String Quartet, though he didn’t complete the work on time for their concert in September 1936. The quartet has three movements:

  1. Molto allegro e appassionato
  2. Molto adagio
  3. Finale: Molto allegro (come prima)

The quartet premiered in Rome in 1936, with the Pro Arte Quartet. After that premiere, Barber retracted the final movement, for a rewrite—and he did so twice before the work was published. The final form premiered in 1943 only, performed by the Budapest Quartet, in Washington, D.C.

Barber knew early on that the middle movement (Molto adagio) would be popular. 1937, he arranged it for string orchestra. In that form, it became known as Adagio for Strings, op.11a.

First Impressions

One of the peculiarities of the Artemis Quartet is that they are (and have been, for several years) performing standing (except for the cellist, of course). Visually, Eckart Runge is at the center of the arrangement. He takes up the most space, and his big instrument, as well as the lighting further draw the visual attention to him.

As the only remaining founding member, one might suspect that Runge takes up a lead role, as a guarantor of the ensemble’s continuity. However, as mentioned, he is “on the way out”. Still, it was obvious throughout the concert that he indeed retains a central function, but the real lead role now is in Vineta Sareika’s hands. Anthea Kreston, also soon to leave the quartet, seemed to assume a second-tier function behind the first violin, and Gregor Sigl acted as a firm pole, but remained visually inconspicuous, mostly facing the ensemble rather than the audience. All that said, sound-wise, the quartet was very well-balanced, extremely homogeneous and coherent in sound, none of the musicians took an exceedingly dominating role.

The Performance

Barber’s music gives a clear lead role to the first violin, which is largely carrying the melody, often alternating or in a dialog with the warm sound of the viola. The ensemble used a broadly swaying vibrato (never too nervous), which fits this music very well. I was most pleased with the coherent, intense, dense sound, the harmonious, broad dynamic arches, the consequent build-up to the climaxes—so dense that the listener almost started to feel oppressed!

A very impressive, compelling start of the concert—as one could also read from the long silence after the last note, before the applause was setting in. My only quibbles: a certain, slight tendency towards Nachdrücken, with the violins (which I regard a bad habit). Also, I found it somewhat of a pity that the artists just played the exceedingly popular slow movement from op.11: why not perform the entire work? Sure, the Adagio is very nice, solemn music—but if everybody always only performs this movement, this seems to devalue Samuel Barber as a composer?

Rating: ★★★★


Britten: String Quartet No.2 in C major, op.36 (1945)

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) wrote his String Quartet No.2 in C major, op.36 in 1945. The premiere on 1945-11-21 marked the 250th anniversary of the death of  Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695).

  1. Allegro calmo, senza rigore
  2. Vivace
  3. Chacony: Sostenuto

The title Chacony (Chaconne) for the last movement is a reference to Henry Purcell, who used this musical form (also under the label Passacaglia) several times. One can also see it as a theme (of 9 bars) with 21 variations, organized in four segments, with solo cadenzas for cello, viola and the first violin at the intersections.

The Performance

I. Allegro calmo, senza rigore

The performance in the Britten quartet confirmed the very high standard of the ensemble—clearly one of the technically leading ensembles today: perfect in the coordination, both rhythmically, as well as “mentally”: a performance out of one single, common spirit! Equally perfect: the intonation, especially in those tricky passages in unison or in octaves, often performed with very little vibrato, creating a mysterious atmosphere with subtle, ethereal sounds: beautiful music, for sure!

Obviously, the artists have internalized this music, often seem to perform partially by heart, totally focused, largely relying on peripheral vision to stay in contact. The perfection also extends to the dynamic balance, the homogeneity of the sound through all instruments. Yet, the performance was lively at all times: the joy of playing beyond technicalities, ensemble playing at its best! — ★★★★½

II. Vivace

A movement that alternates between enthralling, violent motifs (e.g., in the beginning) and mysterious, murmuring or whispering passages: the stroke of a genius!

I found the performance to be perfect, especially in the coordination and intonation (e.g., in the frequent pairing of the two violins, or of viola and cello). And again, the perfectly matching sound quality (e.g., between the first violin and the cello) was absolutely stunning! — ★★★★★

III. Chacony: Sostenuto

Here, Britten again often works with instruments in unison, e.g., in the presentation of the initial theme. The sheer volume that the four instrumentalists can build up is enormous, stunning! And again, this absolute equality in sound quality, presence, etc. between all the instruments! Vineta Sareika’s violin shone with its warm sound and amazing volume—I’m tempted to call her violin sound virile. I equally liked the sound of the viola, mellow, ductile, not nasal at all.

Overall, I realized how much Vineta Sareika has taken a firm lead role in the ensemble—however, without using excessive gestures, and without visibly exerting control. Eckart Runge supported that lead role through very active participation, accompanied by vivid facial mimics, frequent eye contacts. Gregor Sigl seemed more introverted, very focused. Visually maybe the most inconspicuous of the artists, Anthea Kreston fitted perfectly into the ensemble. She was the one who seemed to observe the others the most, especially keeping close contact with the first violin. — ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Britten’s music (expectedly) proved an absolute masterpiece—a strong, impressive, highly expressive, even breathtaking composition. Did Britten ever write anything but masterpieces?


Schubert: String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden” (1824)

In 1824, Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) composed his String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden”. In that year, the composer had seriously fallen ill, and he realized that he was dying. For this obvious reason he based the second movement (a set of variations) on his Lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), D.531, after a poem by Matthias Claudius (1740 – 1815). The quartet has the following four movements:

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Andante con moto (2/2)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro molto (3/4)
  4. Presto (6/8)

The quartet was performed privately in 1826, but only appeared in print in 1831, after the composer’s death. In 1826, Schubert composed one more string quartet (String Quartet No.15 in G major, D.887), which was published in 1851 only.

I have written about one earlier concert performance of this composition, in a concert in Stein am Rhein, 2017-10-01. See there for more information.

The Performance

I. Allegro

Somehow, the performance in the Schubert quartet seemed less compelling, less coherent than that of Britten’s composition. I can’t pinpoint any real deficiencies (coherence in articulation and sound?)—it’s mostly the overall impression that they didn’t quite reach their own standard, as in their 2009 recording of this work. Sure, the performance was intense. Particular strengths were still in the rhythmic poignancy, the firmness in intonation, the volume and strength of the sound, especially in the unisono passages. Sadly, the ensemble did not repeat the exposition. In the development part, the first violin occasionally seemed to push the tempo, and there was again an occasional, slight Nachdrücken.

II. Andante con moto

More than in the other movements, I again observed a tendency towards Nachdrücken, already in the theme. The theme itself—with all repeats—was not exceedingly celebrated, the pace followed that of Schubert’s Lied. The variations appeared slightly more (rather) fluent. That was OK, considering the con moto. However, sometimes, I wished for a little more time (e.g., a brief ritenuto) at transitions, where the focus seemed to be to maintain the flow. Yes, there were beautiful cantilenas, as well as dynamic subtleties (e.g., in the second variation, where the cello has the cantilena), but in general, there could have been a little more agogics.

The vigorous variations (e.g., No.3) with their momentum seemed to suite the ensemble better than the lyrical ones. Certainly, one could not call the interpretation exceedingly romantic. Was it just my impression that the quartet sometimes exhibited what I would call their main weakness (based on their recordings): their playing sometimes feels “heady”, too intellectual.

On the bright(er) side: I really liked the ppp coda, where there was almost no vibrato—but why, why did the first violin blow up the vibrato in the final two bars??

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto

Also here: technical excellence—but the Scherzo felt somewhat “heady”. I could not point to factual deficiencies. Isn’t that movement more obstinate, more grim, more desperate? Were there enough agogics? Weren’t they pushing forward all the time?

All emotions seemed concentrated in the Trio—too much even: plenty of vibrato, even the occasional portamento in the first violin.

IV. Presto

The last movement is fast, Presto. Maybe here, it was slightly too fast, in that punctuations and grace notes sometimes sounded a tad superficial, not always clearly articulated. However, the playing was still technically excellent, the coordination perfect, the final Prestissimo superb. There was verve, momentum, vigor—and this almost constant, often relentless push forward. But still: shouldn’t there be more despair, more of an emotional outcry?

Overall Rating: ★★★★

It’s difficult, maybe harsh to criticize an ensemble right before it dissolves its current configuration: maybe the upcoming changes threw their shadow onto that performance? It definitely seemed less compelling, less coherent, less convincing than the Britten.


Encore — Bach: Chorale “Des heil‘gen Geistes reiche Gnad“, BWV 295

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) not only used chorales in his passion oratorios and cantatas, but he also harmonized numerous existing chorale melodies for use in church services. One of these is Des heil‘gen Geistes reiche Gnad (The rich grace of the Holy Spirit), BWV 295.

Maybe the artists offered this as expression of redemption or transfiguration after Schubert’s desperate, often sad, but also grim, maybe hopeless quartet? Personally, I found their Bach interpretation rather romantic, sweet—and barely necessary, perhaps even a questionable choice to end the concert?


Conclusion

I really liked the Artemis Quartet’s performance in the first half of the concert (Barber, even more so in the Britten quartet). The Schubert performance left me slightly disappointed. Still, I’m happy to have had this last chance to witness the ensemble’s live performance in their “2016 configuration” (as opposed to listening to CD recordings).

Outlook

While not entirely satisfying throughout, this concert left me with the confidence that with Vineta Sareika‘s strong musical personality, and with Gregor Sigl‘s 12 years of experience with the ensemble, there is a very good chance that the quartet will continue to strive. A lot of course depends on the two new members, violinist Suyoen Kim, and cellist Harriet Krijgh. Given that the selection of these instrumentalists are suitable, good choices, chances for future success are intact. Of course, I would hope that the quartet doesn’t just aim to preserve the existing qualities and characteristics, but that their interpretations will evolve, grow into even higher levels?



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