The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet go way back to 1989, with a line-up that has seen several changes over the past 30 years. Grounding their practice in the great German and modernist classics, with Beethoven as their touchstone, their February recital at Wigmore Hall explored the contrast and depths of the quartet form, with the revolutionary link between Haydn and Beethoven’s work made stark and lucid by way of contemporary composer Jörg Widmann. 

Artemis Quartet
© Nikolaj Lund

We opened with Haydn’s still fairly early string quartet from his Op.20 set. Haydn is indisputably the original genius of the form, allowing each instrument to grow into their individual maturities rather than stay stuck playing the same old parts and lines. The work opens with an uncertain, tentative balance of the moderato, veering between Bach-like fugal complexity and sweet Haydnesque lyricism. The further instability of the often Baroque second movement, where soft, reassuring major cantabiles clash with abrupt minor bumps and juts of the strings, was borne aloft perfectly, an indication of the stark dualities that would soon become even plainer. After the bouncy grace of a palpably mature Haydn minuet, came the ostentatiously announced fugue of the finale, complete with a quadruple subject and cunning thematic inversions. The Artemis melded the contrasts into a whole, communicating, above all, Haydn’s impeccable gift for emotional unity even as he experimented in mood and sound. In this piece you can feel the younger, lighter and the more mature, experimental Haydn engaged in sometimes tense, sometimes breezy dialogue.

The second of Jörg Widmann's so-called “Beethoven studies”, his String Quartet no. 7, is a not overlong yet incredibly dense, compact and visceral two-movement behemoth for quartet. The jagged, twisting motions of the strings, in which deep wheezing breaths interchange with soft gasps, is firmly rooted in the sound-world of Beethoven’s last quartets. Indeed, in this committed performance by the ensemble it felt more than anything like we were rattling around inside Beethoven’s deaf-mad and yet (underneath it all) impossibly lucid head as he tries to transmit these new, weird sounds to paper. With the playful paradox of dubbing the two movements “Grave = Allegro” and “Allegro = Grave”, Widmann uses the conceit of mirror images to cut affectingly to the heart of Beethoven’s emotional landscape near the end of his life. Here, the impossible beauty and terrible mystery of the world are one and the same: the furious struggle to survive pain and understand darkness bumps often bloodily up against the pure joy of unfiltered living and breathing.

In an unusual move, first and seconds violins Vaneita Sareika and Suyoen Kim respectively swapped places for the final, unifying work of the evening, Beethoven’s Op.130. After Widmann’s homage, which plundered quotations and ideas from the late quartets to bring out deep and still modern questions, it was impossible not to hear the piece freshly. The Artemis' perfect symmetry in its balance and unity might lead to an air of emotional distance for some listeners; however, the extreme purpose and drive that this extraordinary piece possesses (once you get past revelling in its mad, primal energy) was served very well.

Lucidity was the order of the day. Everything felt fresh and crisply considered, so that by the time the revered Grosse Fuge (restored to its original finale place) rounded off the evening, each player leaning separately into their impossibly heady counterpoints and then leaning back as one into the more reflective passages, the incredible diversity and ever-fresh boldness of the piece had made itself fully apparent.