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CD Review

Artemis Quartet

Thomas Kakuska, viola
Valentin Erben, cello
Artemis Quartet
Virgin Classics 09463-35130-2 DDD 51:02
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What all three works have in common, of course, is that they are scored for string sextet: two violins, two violas, and two cellos. To play them, the members of the relatively young Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischepenko, Heime Müller, violins; Volker Jacobsen, viola; Eckart Runge, cello) have been joined by Thomas Kakuska and Valentin Erben from the veteran Alban Berg Quartet. Kakuska died of cancer on July 4, 2005, and so this recording is dedicated to his memory.

Although it comes last on the CD, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is the featured work. The arrangement for string orchestra is played and recorded just about as often as the original version for string quartet, which I prefer. A smaller ensemble amplifies the music's emotional immediacy, and it also clarifies the composer's harmonies and interweaving strands. Inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, Verklärte Nacht pushes traditional tonality close to the point of no return. Dehmel's poem describes a conversation between a man and a woman under a brilliantly expressive night sky. The woman is pregnant with the child of a different man. The man loves her and is prepared to accept the child. The various emotions of the two characters – love, pain, guilt, jealousy, forgiveness, and so on – find their equivalents in Schoenberg's passionate music. One way to play this music, obviously enough, is to play up its emotions. This is effective, but it tends to leave most listeners feeling wrung dry. The present reading is more objective. It normalizes Schoenberg's music and gives the listeners more latitude in which to react. It's not exactly a cool reading, but it does remove some of the incipient tension from the score. At 28:58, it is one of the slowest versions I've heard – another factor which tames the score's raging fires. If this approach sounds appealing to you, rest assured it is flawlessly realized by the Artemis Quartet "plus two."

Richard Strauss's Sextet from Capriccio comes from the composer's last opera and sets the time, the place, and the emotional tone for what is to follow. Strauss's writing for strings was almost as gorgeous as his writing for women's voices – both alone and together. Like the opera, it is both beautiful and a little artificial. The objective quality of the present performance probably works in the music's favor; at any rate, it's more appropriate for late Strauss than it is for early Schoenberg.

Berg considered his 1907 Piano Sonata his first mature work – thus the opus number. At the time he wrote it, he was studying under Schoenberg. It is concentrated and even more daring than Verklärte Nacht in the way that it both challenges and pays obeisance to late Romantic ideas about harmony. Several musicians have decided that its richness invites transcription for other instruments. This is violinist Heime Müller's own transcription for string sextet, and it is thoroughly idiomatic. He and his colleagues make an excellent case for it too.

The Artemis Quartet already has recorded music by Ligeti and Beethoven. This latest release confirms the positive impression they've made elsewhere. Do seek out the LaSalle Quartet's Deutsche Grammophon version (with Donald McInnes and Jonathan Pegis) of the Schoenberg, though, for a very different "second opinion."

Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle