Beethoven: String Quartets Nos. 3, 5 & 16 (CD review)

Artemis Quartet. Virgin Classics 50999 0708342 6.

I don't listen to as much chamber music as I should, possibly because I don't receive enough of it to review, possibly because a lot of it sounds alike to me, and possibly because I don't know enough about it. Unfair, I know, but I find myself mostly listening to chamber groups--trios, quartets, quintets, and the like--as dinner music or sometimes as general background music. Which is a shame, because things like these Beethoven quartets have so much to offer, especially when the performances and recording are as good as they are here.

I continue to think of the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischependo, violin; Gregor Sigl, violin; Friedemann Weigle, viola; and Eckart Runge, cello) as a band of young performers, forgetting that they founded the group in 1989, well over two decades ago. In the meantime, they have risen to the top of their profession, as this new disc attests.

With Beethoven's String Quartets Nos. 3, 5, and 16, the Artemis ensemble complete their Beethoven string quartet project for EMI Records/Virgin Classics. The disc contains two of the composer's earliest quartets, Nos. 3 and 5 (1800), and concludes with one of his last completed works, No. 16 (1826), the program interesting in its juxtaposition of the fairly chipper earlier pieces with the more somber and mature tone of the final music.

The Artemis Quartet play with extreme precision, yet they make generally happy, delightful, radiant sounds. If one could fault them at all, they sometimes seem a bit overly studious. While the performances do not sound quite as emotionally charged as some interpretations I've heard, their more-exacting detail means we miss little the composer has to offer. As one might expect, the early pieces exhibit a more frolicsome quality than the final quartet, and the Artemis players do seem to be enjoying themselves and the music. And despite the relative gravity of No. 16, it goes out in cheerful enough style, Beethoven ending the piece on a sunny note of high spirits, with the Artemis ensemble following suit.

EMI-Virgin recorded the performances at Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, in 2010 and 2011, with uniformly excellent results. There is fine clarity throughout, with a pleasant air around the individual instruments and a soft ambient glow from the acoustic setting. It's quite realistic, with my only minor quibble being about the rather wide stereo spread afforded the four players. Still, the stereo spread does make the music seem more imposing, as Beethoven's tunes should be, and I doubt that most listeners will find anything but total pleasure in the recording quality.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa