Thursday, March 20, 2014

Artemis Quartet takes the full measure of Brahms — and the wispy Trauermusik of Gyorgy Kurtag

Ensemble Music Society presented  the Artemis Quartet
You wouldn't think a string quartet's instrument position being a couple of feet higher than normal would make that much difference. But among the excellence o report about the Artemis Quartet's Ensemble Music Society concert Wednesday is the acoustically relevant detail that it plays standing up (except for cellist Eckart Runge, perched on a wooden box).

That peculiarity did wonders for the resonance and projection of the music, giving a heightened dimension to  the Indiana History Center's Basile Theater's already satisfying acoustics. And who knows how healthy it is for the two violinists and the violist to stand up to play, what a boon it is to proper breathing? Teachers emphasize it for individual practice. It's a little odd it isn't more common on the concert platform.

Based in Berlin, the Artemis was founded in 1989. Runge, who also served as ensemble spokesman, is the sole remaining original member. His colleagues in the current quartet are Vineta Sareika and Gregor Sigl, violins, and Friedemann Weigle, viola.

Most of the program was devoted to Johannes Brahms. The Artemis' way with the composer was unusually subtle in its color, quite flexible in rhythms and tempo, and overall seductive in mood. The interpretations of both the Quartet in B-flat, op. 67 and the Quartet in C minor, op. 51, no. 1, were internally consistent, and rarely seemed to be straining for effect.

In the B-flat quartet, which opened the program, the Artemis explored the full spectrum of its understanding of Brahms to illuminate the gentle Vivace first movement. It became evident in the course of the performance how precisely the Artemis balanced the harmonies and how much "air" they let into Brahms' sometimes dense textures. The phrasing, particularly in the third movement, was so well-synchronized as to produce the illusion of one instrument divided four ways. Violist Weigle evinced a lush tone in his extensive second-and third-movement solos. The playfulness of the theme-and-variations finale was brought out expertly.

Occupying the concert's second half, the Op. 51 quartet shot out of the gate in full C-minor earnestness, destined to return vigorously in the finale. In between, the Artemis focused on the winsomeness of Brahms — not often thought one of his most conspicuous aspects — and in the third movement may have advocated at the edge of cuteness. This was certainly a more (dare we say) flirtatious Brahms than we're used to. And it was undoubtedly refreshing.

Gyorgy Kurtag's Quartet, op. 28 ("Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervansky") came in between. Its succession of very short movements, in an idiom inspired by Anton Webern, never failed to captivate across the deliberately somber mood. The quartet's dynamic range had particular variety toward the softer end, with hair's-breadth pianissimos that never fell apart — thanks in part to the extra resonance imparted by the quartet's elevated stature onstage. As cellist Runge remarked beforehand, the language may be post-Webern, but the music's expressivity is rooted in Romanticism.

Tumultuously received after the second Brahms quartet, the Artemis Quartet offered an unusually expansive encore: the slow movement from Mendelssohn's op. 13 in A minor. As with everything else the ensemble played, scrupulously prepared music-making didn't ever inhibit delivering an emotional charge that seemed very much in the moment.