Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quartet for the end of time

A promotional video for the Artemis String Quartet: Eckart Runge (cello), Natalia Prischepenko and Gregor Sigl (violins), and Fredemann Weigle (viola).

In a word, "Wow." Or in a few more words, "Wonderful, but . . ." and then "Oh hell, wow!"

Although actually, does "wow" really cover the small miracle the Artemis String Quartet made of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 (Opus 132) last Friday in their Celebrity Series debut? Somehow "wow" doesn't seem profound enough.

For what this youngish quartet from Berlin tapped into wasn't mere dazzle, although they have plenty of that at their command. Dazzle doesn't bring tears to your eyes. It doesn't make you reconsider your life and every mistake you ever made. It doesn't remind you of the fact that No. 15 is the quartet that inspired Eliot's Four Quartets, and their haunting obsession with how, precisely, artistic experience transcends time.

No, "dazzle" is what came earlier in the program, when the Artemisians (the Artemii?) essayed the early Quartet No. 2 in G Major (Opus 18), which is one of the most delightful pieces Beethoven ever produced. It's known as the "Compliments" Quartet, and as you might guess from that moniker, it's a sweetly diverting valentine to Haydn and (especially) Mozart. And in their all-around refinement and casually classicist technique - led by the calmly brilliant Natalia Prischepenko on first violin - the Artemis seemed to own it from its opening bars.

There's not, perhaps, too much meat on the bones of this delicious confection, however, and when the Artemis leapt forward in time (and Beethoven's development) to Quartet No. 11 (the "Serioso"), suddenly their very facility began to sound a little too light and self-satisfied. The last quartet before Beethoven's transcendent final phase (and written while Napoleon was attacking Vienna, the composer's home at the time) the "Serioso" is a compact, muscular-yet-almost-fragmented experiment full of hairpin turns and unexpected outbursts; listening to it, you feel you're overhearing some sort of private, impassioned argument, and Beethoven himself was quoted as saying it was not meant for public performance. Yet the Artemis seemed to imagine it could conjure the work's furies from the same impeccable craft it had brought to the "Compliments" Quartet. The results were, indeed, impeccable, but strangely empty. Thus my first impression of them ("Wonderful!") began to be tinged with caveats (as in "Wonderful, but . . . ").

No. 15, however, proved to be a revelation. Then again, it always is in great hands. Its famous central movement, subtitled "“A Sacred Song of Thanks from One Made Well, to the Divine” refers to the composer's (brief) return to health in 1825 after a bout of abdominal maladies (the great man would, however, pass away only two years later). It wouldn't be incorrect to term this movement a hymn, and one that might be the most poignant thing Beethoven ever wrote. Here what felt like misguided artfulness in the Artemis version of No. 11 seemed to re-coalesce as a transcendent sense of balance. The piece seemed to not merely resound with a profound sense of gratitude, but also prefigure the composer's awareness that death, inevitably, awaited him (as it does us all). And was it too much to hear in the strange, free lyricism of its last movements the sense that something lies beyond that, too, that death itself can somehow be transcended? If I had the talent of T.S. Eliot, I might have left Jordan Hall and begun writing my own Four (or Five) Quartets, I suppose. As it was, I had to content myself with a sacred song of thanks to the Artemis String Quartet.