The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet, named after the Greek goddess of the hunt, was formed in 1989 and could still be considered a reasonably young ensemble, although only cellist Eckart Runge remains from the original line-up. A well-balanced programme drew a large crowd to Wigmore Hall for a diet of high fibre Beethoven, crunchy Bartók and, joined by young Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, Schumann’s delicious Piano Quintet.

The Artemis Quartet © Nikolaj Lund
The Artemis Quartet
© Nikolaj Lund

The quartet’s blending was remarkable given that there is a marked contrast in the players’ individual tones. First violin Vineta Sareika’s tone is sweet and compact, while the second, Anthea Kreston, has a warm, mellow voice. Former second violin Gregor Sigl brings similar soft-grained qualities to the viola, and Eckart Runge grounds the ensemble with a firm, yet wiry cello.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in D major was his first to be composed, though it got tucked into the middle of his Op.18 set. It has the polite, discursive nature of the classical string quartet as pioneered by Haydn, conversation gradually unfolding in the opening Allegro, with a slightly capricious third movement. In the garrulous finale, the talk becomes more earnest, the participants making their point more forcibly. The Artemis gave a good-natured, restrained performance, with tasteful vibrato to warm and colour phrases, unleashing more vigour in the Presto fourth movement.  

Bartók took his freshly composed Third Quartet with him to America in 1927, entering it into the Music Fund Society of Philadelphia’s competition which he duly won (shared with Alfredo Casella). It teems with misty shadows and spiky dissonances and is great music to watch unfold, from the glassy sul ponticello effects to display of trills and fizzing double-stopped pizzicatos to the extravagent cello glissandos. The Artemis really dug into the stamping Hungarian peasant dance rhythms of the Allegro second movement, fiercely intense. Violins imitated the swift chirrups and whistles of birds brilliantly before the biting finale.

Anna Vinnitskaya © Gela Megrelidze
Anna Vinnitskaya
© Gela Megrelidze

After such earthy fare, Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major was a burst of sunshine, only occasionally obscured by a passing cloud. Composed in 1842, it was the first major work to combine string quartet with piano and is still one of the greatest. Anna Vinnitskaya floated onto the stage, hair tied back and wearing a severe black dress with lace collar and cuffs, as if she were the ghost of Clara Schumann. Her playing was self-assured, caressing the initial theme and quite often pulling back phrases in the Allegro brillante first movement, resisting Runge’s soaring cello song. After a slightly clipped treatment of the little funeral march which opens the second movement, relations warmed, the central agitato section verging towards the passionate. The jaunty Scherzo engaged in skittish rough and tumble before the smiling Allegro ma non troppo finale restored the mood of witty banter.

It was refreshing to see a string quartet play standing up, apart from cellist Runge who was seated on a raised platform. Maintaining eye contact seemed easier and freer body movement enabled tight ensemble. The only caveat was that in the Piano Quintet, Vinnitskaya was visibly obscured, though her playing was happily far less shy.

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