The Strad Issue: January 2012
Description: Benchmark recordings of Schubert masterpieces
Musicians: Artemis Quartet
Composer: Schubert

These are remarkable performances, constantly gripping, seductive, strong and satisfying. The Artemis palette is vast, and the players can turn from raw power to silky tenderness in an instant. Melodic lines are vividly shaped, but always naturally so – there are no intrusive mannerisms here – and the music always has perfectly judged momentum, whether in passages of easy, flowing lyricism or of elemental drive. Texture and balance are superb, with clarity in even the most complex of passages; credit here must also be given to the Virgin Classics recording team.

‘Death and the Maiden’ has a sense of all-pervasive tragedy, with ferocity of attack and drive. But there is light and joy as well, flecking the outer movements, and moments of sheer beauty among the second movement’s variations. There are extremes in the first movement of the A minor Quartet: the opening is caressed; the height of the development has startling forcefulness. Elsewhere, much of the playing is gentle. The slow movement has an easy lilt, and unfolds with beguiling charm. The finale has an air of Classical elegance and good humour.

The mighty G major, with a CD to itself, is a substantial achievement in a number of ways. The players maintain their concentration, and our interest, over its 50-odd minutes. (This is not true of every performance; sometimes it can seem even longer.) The players shape the quartet’s great architectural spans with sure and certain pacing. The emotional intensity ebbs and flows. At times it has symphonic power, at others operatic drama, and sometimes a simple, intimate charm. This is a fine set indeed.