in: Reviews

March 9, 2010

Beethoven’s Humor, Despair from Artemis String Quartet

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The Artemis String Quartet had a triumphant debut when they played in Boston’s Jordan Hall Friday evening March 5 as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. The four players, Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigt, violins; Fridemann Weigle, viola; and Eckart Runge, cello formed their quartet in 1994 after having studied at the Lübeck Musikhochschule, and they count among their mentors the Emerson, Juilliard, and Alban Berg quartets.

With the cello seated on a platform and the others standing, forming a semi-circle in the middle of the stage, the quartet sounded better and more balanced than other similar ensembles in this acoustic. The Artemis chose to present a nearly ideal program, quartets from the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven, to a near capacity house. Although they are German, they played in the Viennese fashion — less severe, say, than the Julliard approach.

First up was the second quartet of Op. 18 (actually the third to be composed in this set.) Never one for whom composition flowed easily, Beethoven struggled mightily on this one, occupying more than 30 sketchbook pages. In Germany it is called the Compliments-Quartette, owing to the three motives in the opening Allegro movement. (Beethoven himself applied only one descriptive name to his sixteen quartets, “Serioso” for the F-Minor quartet, which followed in the program.)

Like the first movement, the “Adagio Cantabile” features the first violin in a graceful ornamented melody. Gemuthlichkeit prevailed. This is interrupted by a change of key and tempo, the first of several quartets to do so. (Did Schubert learn from this technique?) The “Scherzo: Allegro” movement was taken like the wind, contrasting nicely with the “Trio.” The finale, “Allegro molto quasi Presto,” was characterized by Beethoven’s favorite word Aufgeknopft (unbuttoned.) It’s a rondo in which humor is predominant. At the end, the audience gave it a hearty reception.

The Quartet in F-Minor, Op. 95 offered an extreme contrast to this exuberance. By then Beethoven was experiencing deafness, financial difficulties and an unhappy love life. The program notes quoted from a letter Beethoven wrote in 1810, “Oh, life is so beautiful, but for me it is poisoned forever.” The “Allegro con brio” opens with a volley of octaves and then silence. The rest of the movement does not relent in its severity.

The “Allegretto ma non troppo” continues the despair. This is like a march to the scaffold. A diminished seventh chord leads directly to the next movement, marked “Allegro assai vivace ma serioso.” In place of a scherzo, Beethoven continues his struggles. Only the “trio” section provides relief with a steady cantus firmus. The finale begins with a moment of “Larghetto” before launching into a tormented “Allegretto agitato.” Towards the end, we are given a glimpse of hope when the instruments pause on an F-Major chord only to be plunged into an allegro once again. The audience had a well earned intermission after such an experience.

The entire second half was occupied with what an audience member told me was her favorite quartet, the A Minor, Op. 132. The is one of Beethoven’s longest quartets, with the Molto adagio movement (the “Heiliger Dankgesang”) occupying more than 16 minutes. Beethoven became seriously ill with a liver ailment while he was composing it. That’s why the slow movement was re-titled “Thanks to God from a convalescent.” Commissioned by the Russian Prince Galitzin, this is the second of a set of pieces dedicated to him.

The quartet begins simply enough, with strange chords “Assai sostenuto” leading to fugal interruptions. The first violin announces the “Allegro” section. This late music sounds very fragmented at first, but Beethoven manages to keep it organic by motivic ornamentation. The “Allegro ma non tanto” movement, for instance, has a Ländler theme which Beethoven later relates to his first motive.

The long slow movement is the emotional heart of this quartet. The score is fascinating with Beethoven’s markings, not only the Heiliger Dankgesang but also in the Lydian mode reference. This is key to the movement’s religious tone. Later, in the Andante he notes “Neue Kraft fühlend” (feeling new strength.) Then the molto adagio theme is repeated, but with a new strength.

An audience member remarked that the Celebrity Series audience regularly demands an encore. The Artemis wisely resisted. What could possibly follow this magnificent quartet?

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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