Haydn’s Opus 74/3 is entitled ‘Der Reiter’ because of the equestrian rhythms that pervade the Finale (and to a lesser extent the opening Allegro). It enjoyed great popularity dating from its presentation in 1793 at London’s Hanover Square Rooms – the same venue that had witnessed the premieres of the first six of the composer’s ‘London’ Symphonies.
The Artemis Quartet was admirably straightforward in approach and, after a firmly driven opening Allegro, the Largo assai was memorable. The unusual tempo instruction validated the daringly measured speed adopted and gave space for much subtlety of expression. Tempo was firmly retained – even at the melodic change which follows the statement of the first theme – this can sometimes be taken as an excuse to rush forward. The sturdy Minuet was suitably dance-like and drove purposefully through the Trio, properly ignoring the editorial piano and crescendo markings evident in some scores. The Finale was a tour de force: strongly rhythmic, precise and as swift as I have ever heard it.
Broken Islands by Eduard Demetz (born 1958) is in the rare but logical form of five movements, three of them preceded by a half-minute bridge acting both as an introduction to what follows and as a postlude to the previous music. Each movement and every bridge has a title but even with the help of the composer’s written note it was difficult to relate to the pictorial references. The description of structure helped and it was possible to catch links to elements of nearby movements. Phrases of violence and peacefulness were juxtaposed throughout and a particular effect involved frequent use of pizzicato featuring cello and viola challengingly set against arco violins. Only the third movement ‘Blau Erde’ (Blue Earth) retains a rhythmic pattern, sounding like a spiky, hectoring Scherzo. Elsewhere, the lack of basic pulse felt uncomfortable although the Finale, ‘Divided Song’, has a more formal pattern, commencing with unexpected (yet effective) pauses and ending with a lengthy quiet passage leaving solo violin to fade into infinity.
Robert Schumann’s A-minor Quartet pays tribute to classical form but has nineteenth-century divergences. For example a slow introduction was rare for Haydn or Mozart and in the following Allegro the lyrical first theme has a second subject which is an extension of the first – in other words we have a development before the exposition has ended. The Artemis Quartet took a truly traditional view of Schumann and, as with the outstanding performance of Haydn, the musicians were very expressive without ever interfering with the basic tempo. The Mendelssohnian Scherzo was played with strength and the tempo change implied by a metronome marking in the first edition of the score was smoothed over. In the Adagio, cello prepares for a warm solo from lead violin, played with apt gentleness by Vineta Sareika. The three opening chords of the Finale are amazingly reminiscent of the way in which Haydn starts the equivalent movement of his ‘Emperor’ Quartet. Played here with great élan this Presto movement reaches a slower section which, Dvořák-like, precedes the coda. This Moderato was played at half the Presto speed thereby exactly retaining the pulse despite the tempo change.
An encore ended the evening in quietness, an arrangement of Brahms’s ‘Waldensnacht’, the third of the Opus 62 collection of Lieder, performed expressively and calmly.