BRAHMS String Quartets Nos 1 & 3
From the quick vibrato of the opening of the First Quartet to the viola’s pure tone that leads to the second subject just 10 bars later, the Artemis give us a Brahms of and for our time, inevitably informed by their work on Bartók and Ligeti just as much as on late Beethoven. Even the time taken over that second theme, the first violin’s expansive freedom over his cadenza at the end of the exposition and the suspense hanging over their tentative passage into the development are ‘natural’ expressive devices that have nonetheless swung into and out of fashion ever since Brahms didn’t write them down but left them up to the good taste and sense of his musicians.
The Artemis have both that taste and sense in abundance, and we could count ourselves very lucky to hear nowadays a performance of the C minor Symphony that matched this recording for its urgency and discretion of response to a work that swings no less wildly between fretful pacing, outright grief and elation. Much of both inner movements is played under the breath, which the engineers capture admirably, with just enough of the musicians’ own breath to let us know they are there in the room with us.
The Third Quartet makes a good, contrasting coupling, throwing us forwards to a period when Brahms was looking back, to a spirit of Classical detachment but also covert disarray (having composed the Haydn Variations but two summers previously), realised fully in this open-hearted account, as much in the first movement’s quizzical exchanges as the little sighs and bumps that shape the Minuet and its pair of Trios (more outstanding viola-playing from the late Friedemann Weigle here and in the finale’s first variation). The Gringolts Quartet (Orchid, 8/14) are tonally drier and more literal observers of the movement’s initial agitato marking: a closer and more fruitful comparison would be with the LaSalle Quartet (DG, 1/82), another new-music ensemble who could play these pieces as though they were written yesterday.