The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet offered a program of sunshine and suspense to kick off its North American tour at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall on Friday. Following the tragic suicide of violist Friedemann Weigle in July 2015, the quartet took stock and decided to continue, with second violinist Gregor Sigl switching to viola and Winnetka native Anthea Kreston taking over the second violin chair. The changes did not affect the first half of the program, where the playing was tight and seamless, but the second half was a departure.
The concert opened with Hugo Wolf’s playful and frolicking Italian Serenade in G-major. Written in 1887, this single-movement work had a three-part structure typical of a rondo. The beginning offered the main musical melodies, the middle featured different, contrasting themes, and the end essentially reprised the beginning.
The only thing remotely Italian about this piece is its sunny and joyous vibe, which the Artemis played up to the hilt. The work contained many opportunities for each player to shine. It opened with a lively, slightly demented tune passed initially between the viola, played with great detail by Sigl, and the first violin, offered by Vaneta Sareika, while the other instruments backed up with plucked, pizzicato notes.
Cellist Eckart Runge heralded the middle section with the style of cello playing I prefer. Minimizing the instrument’s texture, which can obscure the actual note, Runge allowed the note to sound clearly. Overall the playing was well executed and exciting.
The second work on the program, Leos Janacek’s first string quartet, called Kreutzer Sonata, never used to interest me, as I am not particularly fond of the original Kreutzer sonata, Beethoven’s most ambitious foray into the piano and violin duo. Upon learning that Janacek’s quartet, written in 1923, is based on a Tolstoy story instead of the Beethoven sonata, I gave it much more attention and discovered a gloomy, suspenseful piece that was fascinating in several respects.
Especially interesting was the way that all of the musical ideas come from themes in the first 10 seconds: six longer, pensive chords on the violins and viola by Sareika, Kreston and Sigl, followed by a series of rapid, whirling notes played by Runge on the cello. Variations of this concept with different combinations of instruments reappeared throughout the work; added permutations resulted from use of mutes and playing on the bridge, which produced a scratchy sound.
Key to a good performance is the ability to apply the right touch to each permutation, and the Artemis Quartet did just that. As the piece progressed, the ensemble was able to capture the increasing intensity and darkness of the overall mood. The players were also able to stay completely unified during the frequent and abrupt changes in tempo.
Unlike the original Kreutzer sonata, the final piece on the program was a Beethoven work that I totally love: String Quartet No. 7 in F-Major, Op. 59 no. 1. This work, along with a half dozen others composed around 1804-1806, marked Beethoven’s definitive break from the 18th century classical forms perfected by Haydn and Mozart.
The changes Beethoven pioneered affected the structure of the individual movements and the makeup of the work as a whole. With this quartet, Beethoven altered the sonata-form movement, the backbone of classical music, in numerous ways. He eliminated repeats, lengthened the middle section, added long endings, moved the climax from the middle to the end, and added musical themes to what had traditionally been two themes per movement. For the first time ever, each movement of a four movement work was in sonata form. Gone were the minuet dance and lighter rondo finale. Also, this piece was almost twice as long as the typical string quartet by Haydn and Mozart.
Beethoven’s innovations allowed for far more breadth, intensity, and variety in musical expression and opened the door for the Romantic Movement in music, which paralleled similar movements in art and literature. The result was a new style that endured for the next 100 years.
Unfortunately the tight ensemble playing from the first half of the program did not reappear in the second. Much of it was simply a singular occasion of the first violin and especially the viola being out of tune. The consonants rarely resonated, and moments that should have been peaceful were jarring instead.
The inexperience of the Artemis Quartet’s new, reshuffled line-up clearly played a role. In the opening notes, cellist Runge payed an ascending melody accompanied by the second violin and viola. Although Beethoven marked the cello part dolce, Runge overpowered the accompaniment and was anything but sweet. Also, while labled a fast-paced Allegro, the opening movement should be measured and thoughtful, but the Artemis zipped through it so quickly, the four players never seemed to catch up to one another. It felt more like a race than the careful weaving of an aural fabric that this movement demands.
The intonation improved when Rigl retuned his viola after the first and second movements. The slow, third movement was better. There was a bit more warmth in the playing, but the super slow tempo seemed to drag toward the end. A lack of cohesion remained an issue, a challenge which carried into the finale. Although played at an appropriate tempo, the finale failed to produce the kind of supreme satisfaction Beethoven clearly intended for this monumental work.
This concert was part of UChicago Presents, which brings to Hyde Park classical and jazz programs spanning the ages. Up next is Contempo-Jazz Double Bill, which explores the similarities of modern classical and Jazz on Saturday, April 16, at 7:30pm at the new Logan Center for Performing Arts. Memories from Rio will feature a program of guitars, piano, and voice by Sergio, Odair, and Clarice Assad, on Sunday, April 17, at 3pm, at Mandel Hall. Lectures take place an hour before each concert.