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Schubert : Quatuors 'La jeune fille et la mort', 'Rosamunde', en sol majeur
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Les successeurs du Quatuor Alban Berg, après leur intégrale remarquée des Quatuors de Beethoven, nous reviennent avec 3 chefs-d'oeuvre de la musique de chambre : les trois derniers Quatuors de Schubert, à propos desquels tout a été dit et écrit, notamment à propos de « la jeune fille et la mort » et « Rosamunde », monuments de lyrisme, de dépouillement mais aussi de modernité. Schubert et Beethoven étaient contemporains mais se fréquentaient peu, et étaient très différents. D'après Eckart Runge, le violoncelliste du Quatuor Artemis qui a tellement joué les Quatuors de Beethoven, « il y a une modernité éclatante dans ces 3 quatuors de Schubert, mais totalement différente de celle de Beethoven. Le 14e est concentré et dramatique, le 15e est immense, symphonique, cosmique et le 13e est introspectif et mélancolique, moins spectaculaire que les deux autres... Schubert est d'une incroyable simplicité, toujours concentré sur une idée et une mélodie qu'il développe, là ou Beethoven est beaucoup plus structuré et complexe. ». Ce nouvel enregistrement fera date et sera soutenu par une promotion nationale et un concert parisien.
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Anyone who has surveyed Santa Fe Listener's reviews know he is less fond of newer interpretations when it comes to romantic staples. No Gardiner, no Hagen quartet, nothing too crisp or clean, not a fan of less vibrato. That's fine, to each his own. I say this not to openly disagree or to criticize, but to at least offer a filter for those who may be turned off by his three star review. I'm actually surprised he gave them that many stars. If I were a hardcore fan of the Busch quartet I probably wouldn't care for the Artemis Quartett either because their style and interpretation are totally different. For some, this may not sound like Schubert. Maybe they will find it has "lack of depth," or that it is "subdued and restrained." I feel none of those things. For my taste I am completely engaged and invigorated by their approach that sounds anything but subdued, while still avoiding the pitfalls of most quartets that drag us downward into the excesses of 20th century romanticism.
If you have heard the Artemis Quartett in recent years then you'll know what to expect. For fans it is self-recommending. If you don't like the Artemis Quartett, then don't buy this set. If you aren't sure, save yourself some trouble and listen to it for free on Spotify. For my money the Artemis Quartett has consistently provided an ideal balance of modern interpretation and ensemble, both live and in the studio, and since their roster change halfway through their Beethoven cycle they have only improved. Heartily recommended.
Their playing is often subdued and restrained, and yet strong eruptions of accented playing interrupt the calm surface to a disorienting effect. The pacing gives the impression of tiptoe and stomp. Most of the virtues I hear are negative: the Artemis isn't clinical, aggressive, or overwrought. They set an eerie atmosphere in the first movement - is this an attempt to unify it with the slow movement's quotation of an eerie lied?
When they arrive at the second movement, the Artemis give a hollow, soulless tinge to the famous Death and the Maiden melody; it's different and arresting. the Scherzo is clean and well delineated. The presto finale shows off their impeccable unanimity in very fast passagework. What brings up comparisons with the Alba Berg Qt. is just this tonal unity, and it's impressive. But nothing here gives a deep sense of enjoyment. It's the fashion to consider Schubert an agonized soul, in reaction to the traditional view that he was a sunny innocent, but surely both are one-sided. Schubert is about joy shadowed with melancholy, and if you erase the joy, you aren't doing full justice to the music.
I found a lack of interpretative depth in the Artemis' accounts of the late Beethoven quartets. Schubert doesn't take off from that phase of Beethoven; he's under the sway of the middle quartets, and in his lifelong struggle to rise to Beethoven's level, I think that it's in the string quartet that Schubert incontestably succeeded. Moving on to the Rosamunde Qt., one hears playing that is more tender, especially in the Andante movement where Schubert uses a theme from his Rosamunde incidental music as the basis for a set of variations. The Artemis step into the Scherzo with a return to their hollow, haunted mode. It works, more or less, but it's perilous to leach out the music's exuberance and high spirits. the finale is played like Haydn, which adheres to another fashion for turning our backs on the Romantic revolution in music. I'm reminded that if the Artemis are going to trim down Beethoven, they feel a free hand to do the same to Schubert. Here the first violin's tone is so reduced it becomes squeaky.
CD 2 is devoted to Quartet no. 15, the only one to my ears where Schubert really did try to equal a late Beethoven quartet. It's use of tremolos, its jagged sycopations and mysterious, often abrupt harmonic shifts all echo the enigmatic, often unapproachable style that Beethoven adopted from op. 130 onward. So it's a real pity that the Artemis miniaturize this score even more than they do the previous two quartets. The playing is cautious and refined, with little attempt to give free rein to the music's strangeness. Compared with magnificent accounts of the Fifteenth by the Busch and Alban Berg Qt., we aren't in the same league of aspiration or achievement.
I've used a lot of words to say that I was rarely engaged by this twofer, and quite often my attention wandered as the playing became fussier and more self-absorbed. As darlings of The Gramophone, the Artemis will no doubt get Recording of the Month for this new release. That's easy enough to shrug off.
The first movement of the Death and the Maiden is reasonably done, though the Artemis tends throughout the set to substitute volume for passion, But the slow movement! It may be unsophisticated to speak in these terms, but isn't the theme sort of sad, the first variation sweet, the second soaringly lyrical, the third almost dithyrambic, and the fourth (please indulge me) a visit to the Garden of Eden. If you don't like those descriptions, supply your own. The only description I can think of for this performance is nondescript, as each variation passes by with little notice taken of anything. The scherzo, like those is all the quartets, is fast and empty. The opening movement of the next quartet, the A minor, is fast and misses the bittersweet nature of the movement and its scherzo misses its nostalgic lilt. The finale put me to sleep. The G major is somewhat better, but no competition for the recent recording by the Belcea Quartet.
So there it is. If you like your Schubert played by Jack Webb as Joe Friday in "Dragnet," this is the set for you. To me it seems like Schubert is just not the Atremis Quartet's cup of tea. I hope they return to form in their next recording.
As in their Beethoven set, the Artemis make repeats in the reprises of the scherzos. In this case, more is less.