In their sold-out all Beethoven concert at the Wigmore Hall, the two violinists of the Artemis Quartet switched places during the interval. Gregor Sigl played first violin in the op.18-4 and op. 135 quartets, and after the interval Natalia Prishepenko led in the popular Razumovsky No. 1 quartet. The Emerson Quartet is known for this practice and has been highly successful, but in the case of the Artemis Quartet, I felt that the sound balance changed significantly and I found the second half less convincing.

Their programme was well-balanced: one quartet each from Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods, highlighting Beethoven’s amazing journey in this genre. The C minor quartet op. 18-4 (1798-1800) is written in a largely classical mould and the first violin has a more soloistic role than in his later quartets. The four players of the Artemis Quartet, who perform standing up (the cellist sitting on a raised platform), produced a well-blended sound and crisp, unified phrasing. In particular, the Haydnesque finale with its Gypsy-rondo theme and contrasting episodes was played with panache.

Then we jumped to Beethoven’s final quartet, op. 135 (1826) which was also his last full work. It is a world away from the op. 18 set -- abstract and introspective, with the simple and heart-stoppingly beautiful slow movement at its core. In the first movement, the main themes interweave in fragmented and unexpected ways. It was well paced and the four lines wove in and out with ease. After the contrasting inner movements, they approached the famous last movement -- known for its “muss es sein (must it be)?” theme -- with conviction and skill.

However, the Razumovsky No. 1 quartet (1806) in the second half was less satisfying. With the switch of the violinists, the four players seemed to lose balance slightly and their sound blended less well. It was hard to pin down where the reason lay, but I felt that the timbre of the first violinist in the high register lacked sparkle. Also, whereas the cellist provided strong support all way through (as well as the eloquent rendering of the opening melody), the inner voices (second violin and viola) lacked warmth. Overall, the performance was lively and energetic, and although at times they rushed and there were moments of untidy ensemble, they built up to an exciting climax. All in all, I felt that even if it is their practice to switch violinists within a concert, they should perhaps avoid it in a single-composer programme.