The Mozartkirche, a grand Catholic church in Biberbach, provided a somewhat reverential setting for the sixth concert in the mozart@augsburg series. It was also a distinct contrast to the elaborate Small Golden Hall in which the previous evening’s concert, “Chamber Music Pearls”, was held. The Mozartkirche is also a setting of anecdotal and historical interest: in 1766 a young Mozart and a slightly older boy, Sigmund Bachmann, competed against each other on the Weidner organ there at the time. To Mozart’s fury, the result was a tie.

The Artemis Quartet at mozart@augsburg
The Artemis Quartet at mozart@augsburg

This evening’s programme, “Grosse Streichquartette”, had a distinctly German feel – Astor Piazzolla’s four “del ángel” pieces notwithstanding – betraying a sense of weight, substance and seriousness. Indeed, here may reside an additional meaning behind the chosen title, alongside that inspired by the lengths of the works presented.

There was immediately a tangible synchronicity between the members of the Artemis Quartet and a sense of unified intent which underpinned the entire concert. The opening chorale in Felix Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet Op. 13, for example, was played with great attentiveness, and the inevitable descent into the minor tonality was handled with care. This tightness of the ensemble in fact showed itself in all movements, particularly during hierarchical alternations between the instruments (which often occurred suddenly) and groupings therein, which were communicated both directly and clearly.

Given the Artemis Quartet’s noticeably unified approach to performance (highlighted, incidentally, by their lack of individual histrionics both in playing and gesture), their choice of a programme with noticeably polyphonic moments – emphasising separation – was interesting. Within the fugal sections of Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 they struck a good balance between clarity of individual parts and overall integration. Furthermore, in terms of programming, the Mendelssohn also tied a subtle, contrapuntally minded connection to the work that followed.

At the centre of the evening was a handful of J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and movements from Piazzolla’s “del ángel” collection, fused by the quartet into a single-movement performance. As explained by Artemis’ cellist Eckart Runge, the idea of the fugue (which comes from the word fuga, meaning “chase”) reminded him of the way in which two tango dancers interact with each another. The styles of the two composers set each other off well – the clarity of structure and polyphonic writing from the Bach formed the perfect riposte to Piazzolla’s rhapsodic, fiery and free-sounding movements (some of which included rough glissandi, cello-slapping and foot-stamping). The transitions from one composer to the next were both convincing and varied: sudden changes, accelerandi and sustained final chords of one work leading to the opening of the next, all with an underpinning tonal connection. Whilst one of my colleagues felt that there wasn’t enough continental passion in the Artemis’ rendition of the Piazzolla movements, I found that I disagreed. The quartet could have perhaps taken the flexibility of their performance to greater extremes, but their Piazzolla was soulful and lyrical, with a deliciously husky tone and a gutsy attack on the strings from all four players. In addition, Friedemann Weigle (viola) and Runge really came into their own and their presence was strongly felt. The solemn backdrop clearly hadn’t affected the Quartet’s choice or execution of the programme.

The final work, Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in C minor Op. 51 no. 1, again emphasised the unity with which the Artemis Quartet could perform. There was beautiful blending in the second movement, and moments of resonance and expansion. In addition there was a playfulness and charm in the flexibility taken in certain parts of the third movement (for example, the pizzicato exchange between Runge and second violinist Gregor Sigl).

Whilst tonight’s programme was well chosen on its own terms, it also became clear that it was a prime platform for the quartet to play to their strengths as a tight and integrated ensemble. I look forward to hearing them again and, in particular, hope to have the opportunity to hear further renditions of their Bach–Piazzolla fusions.

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