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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Art of the Artemis

THEY LULLED US WITH a Brahms quartet, then snuck in fifteen minutes of music by György Kurtág before intermission. The Hungarian-born Kurtág, still with us at 88, isn’t as well known as his friend and classmate, György Ligeti (whose music was played here a couple of seasons ago by Jeremy Denk), but he shares a fascination with the very nature of sound.

Artemis Quartet
In Kurtág’s case, a love of the music of Anton Webern has shaped his composing career. The piece performed by the Artemis Quartet, “Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervánszky,” was written in 1989, paid tribute to yet another composing compatriot and fellow Webern fan. Szervánszky, who died in 1977, and whose “Six Orchestral Pieces” (1959) was very influential as an exploration of serial composition.

The Union College audience generally is a game bunch, but some get a little grumbly when denied accessible melody. Still, the spoken introduction by cellist Eckart Runge helped prepare a fairly full house for what followed, in which the writing was as tight as possible and the performance – as presaged by the Brahms – transcendent.

Kurtág laced the piece not only with self-reference but also many more idea-themes than are casually apparent. Thus, the beginning, marked Largo, on the cello’s open strings, is a tribute to another late friend, cellist Tibor Turcsányi, and three of the movements quote from a Kurtág song cycle. And there are quotes by Webern and Szervánszky, with the very finish of the piece an excerpt from the Larghetto of Szervánszky’s Serenade for String Orchestra that breaks off almost in mid-phrase.

But it’s not that simple. Eight of the work’s fifteen movements are based, however un-obviously, on ideas derived from the Larghetto, while a tone-row from Webern’s Cantata No. 2, Op. 31, is soon placed against some of those Szervánszky ideas.

Complicated as it sounds, the music itself is lean, exploring the production of sound as much as the sounds themselves. Thus, the plangent chords in the third movement finish in harmonics, while a “Canon a 2" drives a plangent major second into unison with an unsettling result.

A rich emotional texture emerged, and if it seemed unusually resonant with the music of Brahms, that’s no surprise: his own Hungarian influence was evident in the works that bookended the Kurtág piece.

Beginning with Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, his last essay in that form and his most joyful one, a four-movement journey that begins with an exuberant hunting-horn figure and winds up with a theme and variations that sweeps us from a simple-sounding folksong element into Cesar Franck-like reëxamination of the first movement.

Most immediately striking about the performance by the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet is the group’s sense of dynamics, so that a sudden transition from forte to piano 32 measures into the first movement provoked excitement, which doesn’t usually happen when the room gets quieter. Soon after that it diminuendoed to pianissimo, yet the pin-drop quiet still gave us every note clearly sounded.

Each of the players – the others are Vineta Sareika and Gregor Siegl, violinists, and Friedemann Weigle, violist – displayed a beautiful individual, and individualistic, sound. Weigle probably didn’t need the composer’s help in the third movement, where he gets a yearning melody at the start colored by the directive to leave the viola au naturel while the other three instruments clamped on mutes.

That Allegretto movement is also marked agitato, located where a scherzo traditionally is found, and with the viola holding forth so nicely it seemed not at all agitato – but soon enough it was obvious that a missing eighth note at the beginning of the violins’ and cello’s early measures was going to recur and develop.

The program finished with Brahms’s first quartet, which is in C Minor and takes a darker approach to its four-movement mission. After a truly agitated opening movement, Mendelssohn-like in its busy-ness, we’re given its dotted-note figurations in the much slower setting of an adagio movement that epitomized the ensemble’s fascinating contrast between individual tones and collective identity.

Fittingly, the piece finishes with a very Hungarian-sounding Allegro, and it really needed no encore, but an insistent audience dragged out of them not the typical Haydn fluff but the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. Well chosen, brilliantly played.

Artemis Quartet
Union College Memorial Chapel, 22 March 2014

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