Wigmore Hall, London, 30 November 2015
When the violist Friedemann Weigle died in July, the surviving members of the Artemis Quartet could have been forgiven for keeping their grief private. In this concert given in his memory they performed a service all the more noble for transmuting the dull pain of sorrow into a living act of memory with performances that both acknowledged his absence and were inspired by it, not overwhelmed by pathos but rather full of their characteristic energy and freshness of expression.
Taking Weigle’s place, second violinist Gregor Sigl attempted no imitation of Weigle’s uniquely broad and plangent sound in a Partita of Bach and Piazzolla devised by the quartet’s cellist Eckart Runge back in 2012. In the Sarabande from the English Suite No.3 he shared the top line from phrase to phrase with leader Vineta Sareika, softly and gently laying the melody to rest before a viola cadenza inevitably shone a spotlight of sound on an empty space. This led to Piazzolla’s Fuga 9, fast and furious, with an abrupt close that ceded to the searching counterpoint of Bach’s three-part Sinfonia BWV795, played as a bare and rocky outcrop from The Art of Fugue’s summit. Sweet consolation arrived with Piazzolla’s Oblivion Tango which leaned little by little into the dotted French rhythms of the Goldberg Variations, until the ‘Black Pearl’ was revealed. The pull of the variations’ aria was not to be resisted, and they played it almost under the breath, more like a bunch of lilies than a headstone.
Performances of this touring programme are featuring other piano quartets by Brahms, but the Third was a perfect companion. C minor is as haunted a key for Brahms as it had been belligerent for Beethoven. Just as the first movement of the contemporaneous C minor symphony seems on the run from some unseen, malign force, and the symphony as a whole pays covert tribute to the memory of Robert Schumann, so in this performance we could hear the rage and frustration that storms across Brahms’s music where in life it was masked by irony and sarcasm. Indeed the quartet’s opening quotes Schumann’s own ‘Clara’ theme, played here at first with mahogany richness, then bleached out to pine: the Artemis have always taken care to find a sound for each composer, and their recently released CD of string quartets – still with Weigle – is a model of modern Brahms playing, lithe, unbearded by tradition but still throbbing with the portamento, vibrato and long cantabile lines that his music demands.
So it was here. Pianist Markus Groh was a model of discretion, at least until the towering close of the Scherzo recalled the same point in the B flat piano concerto – inevitably leading, therefore, to the slow movement’s long cello solo. Finally, as if it had been in Brahms’s head all the way through, the famous (C minor) tattoo of Beethoven’s Fifth emerged under Groh’s fingers, while the strings shaped oblivious elaborations of the finale’s flowing second theme, until they could ignore the Beethoven in the room no longer, and stormed to the quartet’s close with the inflamed Werther-spirit that Brahms, so unusually for him, took pains to explain to his friends: ‘Now think of a man who is going to commit suicide and for whom nothing else is left.’
Listen here to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the concert, until 31 December. It was one of the most enthralling events of my musical year.