Not many quartets are given recording dates anymore, and the number that have major-label contracts reaches the vanishing point. EMI/Virgin has stood by the Artemis Quartet, however, through a complete Beethoven cycle, and now the group has moved on to Schubert's last three quartets, where they extend some of the "updating" techniques that I have decidedly mixed feelings about. The string sections of orchestras tend to employ much more varied vibrato, and sometimes none, in the classical repertoire. I dislike the white, zingy sound this produces, and here it crops up in the striking unison chords that open the Death and the Maiden Quartet. The Artemis go on to lighten the textures and generally diminish the Romantic side of Schubert's music - I am not fond of that, either.
Their playing is often subdued and restrained, and yet strong eruptions of accented playing interrupt the calm surface to a disorienting effect. The pacing gives the impression of tiptoe and stomp. Most of the virtues I hear are negative: the Artemis isn't clinical, aggressive, or overwrought. They set an eerie atmosphere in the first movement - is this an attempt to unify it with the slow movement's quotation of an eerie lied?
When they arrive at the second movement, the Artemis give a hollow, soulless tinge to the famous Death and the Maiden melody; it's different and arresting. the Scherzo is clean and well delineated. The presto finale shows off their impeccable unanimity in very fast passagework. What brings up comparisons with the Alba Berg Qt. is just this tonal unity, and it's impressive. But nothing here gives a deep sense of enjoyment. It's the fashion to consider Schubert an agonized soul, in reaction to the traditional view that he was a sunny innocent, but surely both are one-sided. Schubert is about joy shadowed with melancholy, and if you erase the joy, you aren't doing full justice to the music.
I found a lack of interpretative depth in the Artemis' accounts of the late Beethoven quartets. Schubert doesn't take off from that phase of Beethoven; he's under the sway of the middle quartets, and in his lifelong struggle to rise to Beethoven's level, I think that it's in the string quartet that Schubert incontestably succeeded. Moving on to the Rosamunde Qt., one hears playing that is more tender, especially in the Andante movement where Schubert uses a theme from his Rosamunde incidental music as the basis for a set of variations. The Artemis step into the Scherzo with a return to their hollow, haunted mode. It works, more or less, but it's perilous to leach out the music's exuberance and high spirits. the finale is played like Haydn, which adheres to another fashion for turning our backs on the Romantic revolution in music. I'm reminded that if the Artemis are going to trim down Beethoven, they feel a free hand to do the same to Schubert. Here the first violin's tone is so reduced it becomes squeaky.
CD 2 is devoted to Quartet no. 15, the only one to my ears where Schubert really did try to equal a late Beethoven quartet. It's use of tremolos, its jagged sycopations and mysterious, often abrupt harmonic shifts all echo the enigmatic, often unapproachable style that Beethoven adopted from op. 130 onward. So it's a real pity that the Artemis miniaturize this score even more than they do the previous two quartets. The playing is cautious and refined, with little attempt to give free rein to the music's strangeness. Compared with magnificent accounts of the Fifteenth by the Busch and Alban Berg Qt., we aren't in the same league of aspiration or achievement.
I've used a lot of words to say that I was rarely engaged by this twofer, and quite often my attention wandered as the playing became fussier and more self-absorbed. As darlings of The Gramophone, the Artemis will no doubt get Recording of the Month for this new release. That's easy enough to shrug off.