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Artemis Quartet records quartets from three decades of Mendelssohn’s life

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed

The Artemis Quartet was founded in Lübeck in 1989 and is now based in Berlin. They had an exclusive recording contract with Virgin Classics/EMI, which began in 2005 and covered some major projects, including the release of a box set of the complete string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. However, as a result of the breakup of EMI Group Limited, the Artemis Quartet is now recording on the Erato label.

Their first recording on the Erato label is a two-CD set of three string quartets by Felix Mendelssohn. This seems to have been conceived as a historical profile of the composer since each quartet was composed in a different decade. These are, in chronological order, Opus 13 in A minor (1827), the first of the three quartets in the Opus 44 set of three, composed in the key of D major (1838), and Opus 80 in F minor (1847, the last year of Mendelssohn’s life).

Three of the four chairs in the Artemis Quartet have undergone at least one change. (My father like to tell the story of the axe that had been in the family for five generations, during which it had received four new blades and two new handles.) The most recent change took place in 2012, when Vineta Sareika took over first violin, making this her first Artemis Quartet recording. The other members are Gregor Sigl (second violin since 2007), Friedemann Weigle since 2007), and Eckart Runge (cellist and the only founding member).

The recording sessions for this new album took place in May and September of 2013. This gave the four musicians plenty of time to get to know each other and allow the quartet to find its new voice under Sareika’s leadership. On the whole they have a well-balanced sound. Where studio work is involved, one cannot always be sure of how the actual dynamic levels balance; but one can still appreciate their attentiveness to each other through the compatibility of individual phrase structuring with the overall group sound. As might be expected, these virtues are most evident in their interpretation of the second-movement fugue in Opus 13.

Nevertheless, while these performances are technically sound, I am afraid that I did not find them particularly compelling. I must confess, however, that I am in a rather awkward situation with respect to this repertoire. This is because, as my San Francisco readers know, I spend a lot of time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, much of which goes into observing master classes taught by distinguished visitors.

I have noticed that any visiting string player usually gets to coach at least one performance of a movement from one of Mendelssohn’s chamber music compositions. From sitting in on these sessions, I have begun to appreciate that Mendelssohn demands a lot from his interpreters. There are no end of subtleties lurking beneath the seemingly straightforward surface structure that you find on the score pages. Recognizing that those subtleties are there is thus a primary challenge in performance, followed, of course, by then deciding how you are going to interpret them.

Having now spent a fair amount of listening time with these challenges, I have discovered that the most compelling interpretations arise through an in-the-moment spontaneity of a chamber ensemble in which each player has a solid mental model of the others. This makes for some truly exciting concert-going; but it rarely leads to equally exciting recordings. Thus, while one may listen to the same recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 133 (“Große Fuge”) any number of times and discover some previously overlooked cranny each time, it is too easy to get used to even many of the best recordings of Mendelssohn’s chamber music.

This leaves me curious as to how Artemis approaches Mendelssohn when they are in concert. Sadly, it was difficult to find any Mendelssohn on any of their recent programs; and the programming for their last visit to the United States concentrated almost entirely on Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and György Kurtág, with one lone venture into Franz Schubert’s D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”) quartet in D minor. I worry that they may have decided to take on Mendelssohn out of some sense of obligation to the repertoire, which may explain why not much enthusiasm emerges from the three recordings of the quartets they selected for this album.

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