Singing strings in Hyde Park

The Artemis Quartet
The Artemis Quartet

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Artemis Quartet made their Chicago debut earlier this month, the first stop on a nine stop American tour. Their Mandel Hall performance, hosted by University of Chicago Presents, was a musical success as well as a crowd pleaser.

The quartet — made up of violinists Vineta Sareika and Anthea Kreston, violist Gregor Sigl, and cellist Eckart Runge — opened their concert with a short work by Hugo Wolf. The seven-minute Italian Serenade is one of Wolf’s most popular pieces outside his oft-performed lieder and the Artemis Quartet infused the serenade with energy and color. They knew when to highlight the intensity of the music and when to take a more amiable approach. Particularly appealing was their marshmallow soft conclusion.

Then the Berlin-based quartet offered a sterling performance of Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, a work with an interesting backstory.

Beethoven wrote his Violin Sonata No. 9 in the early 19th century. It’s known as the Kreutzer Sonata, because when it was published, it was dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, considered the greatest violinist of his time. (Interestingly, although not related to the story at hand, it was originally dedicated to George Bridgetower, a very accomplished Black violinist who performed the work’s premiere with the composer at the piano. Beethoven had a falling out with Bridgetower and so changed the dedication.) In the late 19th century Tolstoy wrote a novella of the same name, about a jealous man who mistreats his wife. The climax of the story occurs when the deranged husband becomes increasingly suspicious of his wife. One day he returns home while his wife is at the piano rehearsing Beethoven’s sonata with a violinist and the husband murders her with a dagger.

Janacek subtitled his first string quartet “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and in part made it a musical depiction of Tolstoy’s story. “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata”, Janacek wrote to his young muse, Kamila Stösslová.

The Czech composer had just the right musical vocabulary for this work. His twitchy, nervous, agitated passages were rendered marvelously by the Artemis players, contrasting well with the singing sections. They were flinty and lyrical in turns, and their clarity was always an asset. They were nearly manic at times, drawing out the taut nature of the music and were equally wonderful with brooding moments.

The Artemis Quartet was similarly successful in their performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1. In the opening they were well-oiled and displayed sunny sound. Their rhythms were crisp throughout and they deployed softness brilliantly, knowing just when to exercise restraint.

*****

The Chicago Ensemble offered the penultimate concert of its 2015-16 season Sunday afternoon at International House.

The program opened with Bach’s Contrapunctus 1 from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080. The composer didn’t specify instrumentation, so the ensemble selected their own; it was: Ricardo Castañeda on oboe, Mathias Tacke on violin, Rose Armbrust Griffin on viola and Andrew Snow on cello. It was a splendid performance, led by Castañeda’s ravishing playing on oboe.

The same four players then took on Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, written when the composer was just 19 years old. In the opening they were spare yet engaging. The music, which is initially tentative and almost menacing, was clear and evocative. Later, the gentle, almost sighing, nature of the music came through.

Jonathan Russell’s 2011 Piano Trio won the Chicago Ensemble’s Discover America competition (a contest the group regularly holds to honor new music) and Tacke, Snow and pianist and artistic director Gerald Rizzer took on the first movement. It began slowly and was almost impossibly ponderous, but this soon gave way to more complicated and intriguing sound. Rizzer, in his spoken remarks before the performance, described the work as both minimalist and like an incantation. It was this and more. At times the music seemed to plead and then to gasp.

This was followed by another Discover America winner, this time Roger Zare’s Irlandzki Polonez, written in 2012 for oboe, violin, cello and piano. The composer was at the concert and offered some prefacing remarks, explaining that the work was written while he was engaged and thinking of his wedding. He got the idea to base the work on two dances: A polonaise, because he has a Polish background, and a hornpipe, because his then-fiancé has an Irish background. It opened with piano trembling that eventually gave way to a recognizable polonaise. After this was developed, the violin then introduced the hornpipe and eventually the two dances merged in an exciting conclusion.

The concert closed with Gabriel Fauré’s Quartet No. 2 in G Minor for violin viola, cello and piano. It had beautiful flow and the ensemble performed with energetic enthusiasm.