Quartet núm. 12 en do menor D 703 "Quartettsatz" Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Quartet núm. 2 en fa major op. 22 Piotr Ilitx Txaikovski (1840 – 1893)
Quartet núm. 14 en re menor D 810 "La mort i la donzella" Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Amongst the different genres of chamber music, none have achieved the social prestige and the aesthetic regard that the string quartet has. There exists no other group that can, at the same time, reach the extremes of the sonar sphere exploring such a vast palette of combinations of textures and confer different roles to each instrument. So, the ‘invention’ of the quartet (which should be attributed to Haydn and to Boccherini around the middle of the 18th century) was a discovery of such long-lasting consequence that even today it is still palpable. So, in the 19th century, Beethoven and Schubert found the string quartet to be a perfectly defined genre and both of them would be responsible for writing the next big chapter of its history.
Quartet No. 12 in C minor, “Quartettsatz” by F. Schubert (1797-1828) written in 1820, dark and profoundly intense, announced its maturity in the field of instrumental music. It is one of the many unfinished works that the composer left us. He only managed to conclude a beautiful first movement in C minor to subsequently abandon in the first bars its slow pace. This movement is, in any case, passionate and sumerges us deeply in the seasoned and tragic world of the composer. The tension is so great and so strong are the instincts of freedom surrounding the inherit classic form that continuing becomes, for a moment, impossible.
If we exclude Quartet B-flat major that was started in the height of his youth and of which he only managed to compose the first movement, P. I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) has left us three complete string quartets, written in the brief period from 1871 to 1876. A musician with this tendency of intimate confession and with the extraordinary skill that he displayed in his beginnings, he should have particularly shined in chamber music. But that was not the case and not because the quartets or the remaining chamber works are not interesting or because they lacked technical perfection and style demonstrated by him in other genres. His weaknesses come from his formality; fear of being inexperienced and not achieving the traditional demands of the string quartet. It is a difficult genre because it hardly has the rhetoric comfort of a symphony, which does not mean that in his quartets there are no pages of profound beauty or fascinating creativity. Denying the status of creative genius to the Russian musician is a falsehood.
He wrote the String Quartet No. 2 in F major, op. 22 in January of 1874 and according to his testimony, he did it with great skill and without much effort. Some experts of the work think that the sin of effortlessness would lead the artist to find himself with the penance of a lack of genius and creativity, in spite of the undoubtable majesty in his handling of instruments.
The first performance he did was in private in the presence of the famous pianist Anton Rubenstein. When he heard the execution, he reacted with the same facial expression that maestros give to their disciples who are not considered important and afterwards attacked him with a severity that was easily understandable if we listen to his works, a pallid imitation of the blander German style. However, Tchaikovsky accepted the criticism of his maestro and he needed a few weeks to re-work the piece, premiering it publicly in March of the same year. It is dedicated to the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia.
He brought chromaticism to the fore and the strong dissonance between a slow introduction and the free passages of the first violin which was very daring for his time. This accompanies the movement forward to a moderato assai through an undulant and syncopated melody, to return straightaway to the imagination of the first bars. It is worth highlighting the strong harmonic points that appear in the development. The second movement, scherzo, is one of the most valued parts of the quartet, with the free alternation between bars of two and three beats, with its direct charm, and its simple and ingenious wit. Some authors prefer, without question, the third movement to the rest of the piece, given that it is more personal and characteristic of its composer. Its melody, that is reminiscent of the opening of Fidelio, can be inconsistent but can transmit a sweetness and refinement that captivates. The last movement possesses great energy, and gives off a certain warmth and shows the proven skill of Tchaikovsky in managing harmony and counterpoint. We can also hear in the first violin and in the viola, a melody that has the mark of its composer.
In March of 1824 F. Schubert composed his famous Quartet No. 14 "Der Tod und Das Mädchen" (Death and the Maiden), which is based on a homonymous lied which was written seven years before the text by the priest Matthias Claudius.
We find ourselves confronted by a Schubert who was coming to learn that he was suffering from an illness, syphilis, and who knew that he was dying. As well as being ill he was ruined. The quartet is impressive from the first note to the last and demands superhuman strength from its performers. The work is full of stark contrast, it shows a man close to death and is therefore about death and more concretely of the acceptance of it, when life as we know it comes to an end. There is an internal rigour of the quartet and the structure leads to an evident desire of unity.
As is standard, the work starts with a movement with forma sonata where the first theme is a small motif of repeated notes, just as in Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. It represents the desperate cry of the maiden who seems to say, “I don’t want to die. I’m still young.”
The second movement is structured as one theme and five variations that are no more than five ways of convincing the maiden that death is part of life and that she has to accept it. The main theme, which represents death in this poem, has been taken out of the aforementioned lied and alternates between the instruments of the group.
The scherzo (the third movement) is built on the scheme of the minuet and trio classic (ABA). Death is victorious and plays a ‘happy’ dance with his violin. At times death, or the devil, is represented by an exceptional violinist who often goes happily to the cemeteries to the rhythm of his wicked melodies, like in Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre.
The last movement is a tarantella, which in the south of Italy is a dance of death, in which the motif of the three notes (the Maiden) appears. First in a distorted way to, further on, become an essential part of the structure until the re-appearance of the final theme. The Maiden also ends up dancing the dance of death. She has given up. She even seems to accept what it represents, given that in a way it is rest from senseless tribulations.
An anniversary and a new beginning in one. Far from looking back with satisfaction, the quartet is boldly breaking new ground. Thirty years after it was founded – in 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall came down – a rejuvenated Artemis Quartett welcomes two new members. Over the years the quartet has adjusted to new appointments with ease, and now radical change is on the horizon: from the start of the 2019/20 season violinist Suyoen Kim, born in Münster, Westphalia, and now First Concert Master of the Konzerthaus Orchester Berlin, will alternate first and second violin with Vineta Sareika, following the departure of Anthea Kreston. Meanwhile Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh, already a high-profile soloist, is taking over from founding member Eckart Runge.
This is a changeover that is happening both at high speed and in the full beam of public expectation. In September 2019, the quartet’s touring schedule already includes two dates in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw. In the upcoming 2019/20 season, the re-formed quartet will continue its celebrated cycles with three programmes each in the Kammermusiksaal of the Berlin Philharmonie and in the Mozartsaal at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. It will also continue to perform in leading concert series in Europe, North America and Asia. In doing so the quartet is taking on a huge challenge. At the same time as forming anew, the ensemble has to retain both its character and its identity. The quartet’s farewell to Eckart Runge also marks the departure of the last founding member of the ensemble, whose four original players came together as students at the Musikhochschule Lübeck. But the continuity of the quartet’s future generations is assured: violist Gregor Sigl joined in 2007 and Vineta Sareika was appointed as leader in 2012.
The traditional notion of a string quartet’s style being defined and embodied by one dominant personality – generally the leader – does not apply in the case of the Artemis Quartett. Indeed, the outstanding quality of this group, which was soon winning major international prizes and setting new standards for chamber music ensembles – in part thanks to numerous, highly acclaimed recordings – is the outcome of their unrelenting collective efforts. That is certainly the view of Gregor Sigl, who is now the longest serving member. On one hand the group’s artistic persona is always determined by the characteristics of the individuals making music. On the other hand, over the last few decades the quartet has developed its own DNA, so to speak, which has seen their collective organism become ever more complex and elastic, as Sigl puts it. “Each member has enriched and nurtured the quartet over the years. Each and every musician has made his or her own invaluable contribution. They have all added to the group’s fund of internalised rules and factual knowledge, which is not only carefully sustained but also very deliberately passed on.”
For a long time now the quartet has restricted itself to three programmes per season, with the proviso that individual works may be carried through to the next season. Each programme is prepared with the utmost concentration for a period of weeks; it is then presented many times in concerts across the world, during which the quartet’s interpretations crystallise and become increasingly refined. The four musicians have an unfailingly perfectionist work ethic, which requires precise time management and a high degree of self-discipline. And this rigorous approach provides the framework for great flexibility. Over the years Gregor Sigl has found that “spontaneity arises when a person knows exactly what he or she is doing. Freedom only ever comes from complete security.” The members of the Artemis Quartett always keep detailed records of the results of work done in their rehearsals together, so that whenever they return to a composition they can start again at the same level of creative insight that had previously been reached. Sigl feels that in this way the quartet may well have built up a richer fund of ideas and experience than if they had always had the same four members.
Throughout everything, the musical and ethical foundations of the Artemis Quartett have been stable. As Sigl has put it, besides the highest possible instrumental standards these foundations also embrace an “uncompromising striving for truth”. For the musicians of the Artemis Quartett extreme “curiosity” and “openness” in all their exchanges of ideas plus an ability to shelve one’s own ego form the basis of that “counteraction of all the participants in combative plurality” that philosopher Wolfgang Welsch once identified as the main interpersonal hallmark of the art of the string quartet. The constant high voltage of artistic imperatives in conjunction with immense concentration in the formation of a shared choreography creates the basis of the quartet’s stability both on and off the concert stage. Without this the Artemis Quartett would never have had a career lasting more than thirty years. “After all,” as Sigl says, “the hardest thing is staying together.”
It seems that everything is laid out for the quartet in its new configuration. Early on in the selection process for the positions to be filled, Vineta Sareika and Gregor Sigl soon had their two new colleagues in their sights – but hesitated to approach them because both were already so very successful in their chosen careers. As Sigl says, Suyoen Kim and Harriet Krijgh are just “sensational players”, they are “hugely curious” – and “absolutely want to play in a quartet”. For both of them, this move marks the fulfilment of a long-held professional dream. The fast-approaching Beethoven jubilee year in 2020 will mark a phase during which this internationally renowned quartet will have a special place in the public spotlight. Each of the three programmes with which the Artemis Quartett will mark the composer’s 250th birthday consists of an important Beethoven quartet (Op. 59 no. 3, Op. 130/133, or Op. 132) combined with newly commissioned works by Peteris Vasks, Lera Auerbach and Jörg Widmann. In one programme, which also features the string quintet version of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, Eckart Runge will return as second cello.