Beethoven: String Quartets Op.18 No.4 & Op.59 No.2

Artemis Quartet (Virgin Classics 3802682)

14 December 2008 4 stars

Artemis BeethovenThe Artemis Quartet is evidently in no rush about their Beethoven cycle and this coupling of two quartets, Op.18 No. 4 and the second 'Razumovsky' Op. 59 No.2, has appeared some three years after the first instalment.

This caesura is no doubt due in part to a change of personnel which saw the arrival of violinist Gregor Sigl (who takes the first violin part in the early quartet) and violist Friedemann Weigle. Recorded only a few months after the new members' arrival this disc immediately shows how seamlessly they've fitted into the group and makes it clear why the young Berlin-based group has been garnering such praise.

The only quartet Beethoven wrote in his characteristic C minor, Op.18 No.4 has long been maligned among the composer's first set of six. In the hands of the Artemis Quartet, though, the idea that Beethoven failed to reconcile the passion of the almost mythical C minor mode and the classical requirements of the quartet, mastered but by that stage not yet fully owned, seems strange in the extreme. This is a performance that bristles with tension in the opening Allegro ma non tanto but melts into a wonderfully pointed rendition of the second subject. As throughout the whole disc, textures are clean, phrases immaculately turned, intonation spot-on: technically the Artemis really are beyond reproach.

The C minor quartet's first movement succeeds too due to a straight-forward interpretative approach that jumps on the back of the music's own powerful momentum. This leads also to an account of the Andante scherzo quasi allegretto that definitely emphasises the quasi allegretto and, for some, might be a little too swift. However, it's all executed with marvellous precision and style, as well as finely controlled dynamics. The Minuetto and the finale are similarly on the swift side but the performance of the finale is particularly enjoyable, switching effortlessly between the stormy opening idea and the delicacy and lyricism of the episodes; it is all brought a thrilling end, with precision and power.

The second 'Razumovsky' Quartet in E minor displays the Artemis at their best in the torrid opening Allegro and the Presto final movement. The tension of Beethoven's two disconcerting opening chords – here played as a stern forte, as marked, rather than the violent fortissimo one sometimes hears – is maintained throughout the whole movement, emphasised by the Artemis' excellent dynamic control. Once again, although there's no shortage of power in the sforzandi when required, the textures are always remarkably clean, so that the players' phrasing of Beethoven's complicated contrapuntal writing – again at a reasonably swift pace – is never lost in the mêlée. The furious semi-quaver writing that abounds is impressively articulated and the singing of Natalia Prischepenko's first violin line is a constant source of pleasure.

There's a danger that some of the gravity is sacrificed to technical polish and there's not that sense of straining a the leash that can make performances of the great Beethoven quartets so thrilling. While for me this is less of a problem in the first movement, the great Molto adagio, although once again impeccably well played, misses some of the visionary quality of the best performances. However, all the members of the quartet play with exquisite control and musicality – listen to the first passage of interplay against the leader's tick-tocking idea, for example – and the close attention to dynamics makes for some sudden pianissimos of intense beauty.

The Artemis are again in their element in the skipping rhythms of the Allegretto third movement and the effortlessly dispatched triplets accompanying the Thème russe in the maggiore, even if they miss the rusticity of, say, the Lindsays. Their virtuosity makes for an account of the finale to rank with the finest, skipping along with infectious energy.

There's no doubting the world-class quality of this quartet but this recording sees them entering possibly one of the most crowded fields in the catalogue. They stand up well enough to recordings by the Lindsays, Takács, the Alban Bergs, to name but a few recent groups, but the performances will no doubt grow even more in stature as their cycle commences. Virgin's recorded sound is excellent.

By Hugo Shirley