Artemis Quartet Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartets Op.18/3, Op.18/5 & Op.135 Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Delivered with apparently effortless grace and effervescent athleticism.

Andrew McGregor 2011

This is the end of two journeys: Beethoven’s last complete string quartet Op. 135, 28 years after he picked up the genre from Mozart and Haydn, and took it places neither of them would have imagined. It’s also the final volume of the Artemis Quartet’s impressive Beethoven series, and the Berlin-based ensemble has planned it so that they’re doing exactly what Beethoven himself seems to be doing with Op. 135: looking back to the classical simplicity with which he began his first set of Op. 18 quartets, but now filtered through all the wisdom, knowledge and experience acquired en route.

Don’t be fooled by the numbering of the Op. 18 quartets; No. 3 in D seems to have been the first Beethoven composed, so we have first and last together on the CD. The impetuous Presto finale of the first quartet ends with Haydn-esque wit and delicacy, and after a long pause, the viola opens the window onto another world, as Beethoven near the end of his life seems to say to us: "See what I can do with it now!" The Artemis Quartet plays the opening of Op. 135 with rich warmth, classical poise, and just the right kind of reverence. They don’t hurl themselves at the second movement, instead allowing Beethoven’s ingeniously worked rhythms to propel the piece from the inside. The slow movement’s melody seems to sigh with nostalgia, before the dramatic opening of the finale, setting the words Muss es sein? ("must it be?"), which Beethoven wrote under the opening chords, before answering "the hard-made decision" as he called it himself with the cheery Allegro that follows: Es muss sein! ("it must be!"). The Artemis Quartet tussles with both mottos as they come and go, and at the end leave little doubt that in Beethoven’s life at least, joy and anguish were never far apart.

The two Op. 18 Quartets here, numbers 3 and 5, are delivered with apparently effortless grace and effervescent athleticism, and the recording frames everything to perfection. It’s a deeply satisfying final chapter to a story I’m already impatient to begin again…

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