Carnegie Hall hosts Artemis Quartet

Last Monday night at Carnegie Hall, the young Berlin-based Artemis Quartet performed Brahms’ “String Quartet No. 3” and Schoenberg’s “Quartet in d minor.” The Artemis Quartet gave Brahms’ third quartet an opportunity to step out of the shadow of the composer’s earlier two quartets and shine. The Artemis Quartet’s luminous, intelligent, and expressive performance vindicated the Schoenberg work, “Quartet in d minor,” which early audiences had scorned, as a masterpiece that is both complex and emotional.

Brahms’ third and final quartet is often overshadowed by his earlier, more serious quartets. The third quartet is a lighter work. Eckart Runge, the cellist of the Artemis Quartet, described the quartet as having “a spring-like quality that [the collection of] other Brahms [quartets] doesn’t have.”

The third and fourth movements of Brahms’ quartet are fine examples of counterpoint, the interplay and equality of the four independent instruments, which is a major element of quartet writing. The different instruments trade the melody, giving it a different character, an emotional inflection, and a sense of journey. The Artemis Quartet excelled in characterizing Brahms’ melodies, which were by turns wistful, joyful, serious, and light-hearted. The Artemis Quartet’s performance of the quartet amounted to masterful story-telling in music.

During a pre-concert discussion, Artemis Quartet violist Volker Jacobsen addressed the risks of programming the music of Schoenberg. “As you know,” he said, “Schoenberg is still a dangerous name.” Though Jacobsen admitted that audiences are usually a little smaller when the Artemis Quartet plays Schoenberg, the group’s searing and virtuosic performance of his first quartet more than justified its selection.

Schoenberg’s “String Quartet in d minor” had a disastrous premier in 1907. In 1937, Schoenberg wrote that he “was primarily regarded as the Satan of modernistic music” after its debut. However, the Artemis Quartet’s performance showed the quartet to be a terse, concentrated work that is very complex but full of roiling, powerful emotion.

Schoenberg composed the first string quartet when he was still writing music in the vein of Richard Wagner, known for his grandiose operas; among them, Tristan and Isolde. This was before Schoenberg adopted the 12-tone system and abandoned tonality altogether. In choosing to program Brahms and Schoenberg in the same concert, the Artemis Quartet hoped to bridge the gap between the romanticism of Brahms and the late-romanticism of Schoenberg and demonstrate that the two composers had a lot in common. In fact, Schoenberg idolized Brahms.

Schoenberg’s quartet, however, is so chromatic and the counterpoint so dense that it stretches tonality to the breaking point, creating music that is very tense and complex. The ending of the piece (which is around 45 minutes in duration) is magical: The music finally cadences, or feels like it comes to a resting point or conclusion. The leading tone and the resolution occur about as high as can be played on a violin. The piece ends strongly tonal with peaceful, consonant chords.

The Artemis Quartet succeeded in bringing out the powerful emotion and romantic harmonies in Schoenberg’s quartet. The Artemis quartet also brought out Schoenberg’s incredible string writing. The harmonic notes (very high-pitched notes produced by gently putting the finger on a string rather than pressing down) had a tone that was ethereal.

After the Schoenberg piece finished, and a moment of stunned silence had elapsed, the people in the audience broke out in massive applause and rose to their feet: They had loved the performance — and the piece, which perhaps delighted the members of the Artemis Quartet the most. Schoenberg, met with confusion and disdain by audiences at the premiere of the quartet in 1907, now received the appreciation that he deserved — it just came 100 years later.

With Schoenberg’s music, particularly the atonal pieces that follow his first quartet, performers and listeners alike must work to get at the strong emotion in the work, tonal or not. For this concert, the Artemis Quartet did the bulk of the work, leaving the audience to enjoy the music. Perhaps audiences will realize that, with a bit of effort, they can find the feeling present in even the most challenging modern music.