The musical DNA of a top string quartet

The musical DNA of a top string quartet


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2019

From our diarist, Anthea Kreston:

One final round of repertoire separates me from the end of my challenging, fulfilling and somewhat surreal tenure as second violinist of the Artemis Quartet. These last concerts (starting in two weeks with Nyon, France, and ending in Brussels in mid-June) feature, for the most part, Barber’s Adagio, Britten 2 and Schubert Death and the Maiden. Along the way – Geneva, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna, Montreal, NYC, Florence, Naples, Hamburg, and a spider’s web of concerts connecting those above. The last of these concerts will be in tandem with the New Artemis – a Brahms Sextet (the six of us – new and old), a Sextet transcription of a Berg work by the original violinist of the Artemis – Heime Müller, and ending with the Smetana “My Life”, with the new line-up. This is a wonderful program – like every Artemis program, you can see the wisdom of the choices – the togetherness, the respect paid to the founders, the send off – My Life – our lives, their lives, the life of Artemis. I get to polish off my viola for these last ones – in some ways this will ease my transition back into civilian life – it has both a comfort of playing alongside my colleagues for the last time, and a bit of freshness that it is on an instrument that will, once again, be thrown into the mix of my future musical life.

Sitting in an airplane, heading back to Berlin after a wonderful week in Sorrento, I am filled with anticipation. The final piece we have to learn together (the Barber and Britten were learned before the winter break) is a piece so rooted in the DNA of this group – it has been played by every configuration of the Artemis, recorded, featured on a documentary with the fresh faces of the founding members, working with the Alban Berg Quartet. When I first heard the Artemis, 24 years ago, it was with this configuration, and with Schubert (albeit the G Major instead of the D minor). They left us all stunned, under the spell of their finely-wrought magic. Each member an absolute master of their instrument, able to weave a tale with their solos, and to create a power together – muscular, sinuous, intimate, and flawless – it is an experience that any audience member will recount in a similar fashion. Literally breathtaking.

I know this piece like the back of my hand – like the Artemis of 30 years ago, I was taken, measure by measure, through this piece by trusted teachers – teachers at the height of their performance careers, in ownership themselves of an extensive history of knowledge passed to them in their youth by their own teachers. In my case, not the Alban Berg, but the Emerson. For two years, we had weekly coaching, private lessons, and would accompany our teachers to other locations for further instruction – so they saw us as we learned the foundations of the quartet repertoire, got our feet wet in performance and competition. Aspen, New York, Jerusalem. And, when we were done learning this piece (no one can be done learning this piece – or any piece….), it came with us to Munich, to the ARD competition. That competition win brought things into a miniature full-circle. The ARD competition cycle 4 years before had been won by Artemis, and the winners of both cycles were to spend 10 days together at Schloss Elmau, a magnificent old hotel in the Bavarian Alps.

And so, this past week, I diligently practice my Schubert part – rehearsals begin tomorrow. I have started on a fresh, blank part – marked in the old Artemis indications, listened to their recording and watched the video. But, what will happen in the next weeks will not be a recreation of the past. As a musician, this is not even possible. It would be like asking an artist to repaint The Girl with the Pearl Earring. But – the Force is Strong – and the will of the origins, now passed through to its fourth iteration, will stay recognizable – Obi-won and Luke.

I am a mix of nervous and excited. I must be at the top of my game technically, the moment hair touches metal, but at the same time, as flexible and creative as a tight-rope walker. There is one challenge – my own training, so detailed and so believed – must take a back-seat to the new (for me) version. All musicians become entrenched in their vision – we have to believe in our rendition with every fiber of our body, and yet, the same notes, the same harmonies, the same rhythms – these will take on a new form, new meanings.

I suppose it is a little like having a child. You love the first one so much – you remember every bit of the process – the steps which preceded the birth, and when the baby is born and grows, your heart is attached to every cell of that human. And then, a second baby. How can my heart possibly hold any more? How can I love both, sacrifice everything again – while still maintaining the life and care of the first baby? But, of course, we do. It is a weak parent who allows favoritism – who prefers one child over the other, or offers special advantages to one. That parent is short-sighted, and in the long run, it backfires on them. Without exception.

But – we do learn how to be pregnant and how to give birth and how to parent from the first child. We use those tools – those short-cuts – to help us with the next one. We cannot judge one child, we can only open up to the miracle of the second, and with a twinkle in the eye, see the two children as they grow together, in ways we could never have imagined.



  • Marg says:

    Anthea – I look forward to the final tour with Artemis, albeit a long one of some months. I sense your excitement about how things will unfold with the performances combining each player’s history with the pieces as well as the new and fresh interpretation that comes from this unique combination of talent. Travel well….

  • Hugh Jorgan says:

    The satirical magazine “Private Eye” used to (and may still) have a section called “Pseuds Corner” presenting the most pretentious quotes of the week. The above piece would qualify with flying colors.

  • Hartmut says:

    What a way of celebrating this huge transition of a quartet (if “celebrating” is the proper word …). I admire the programming which is absolutely striking – there’s no better way of telling your audience in which spirit you want the transition to be understood. Plus it’s really beautiful.

    It’s hard to imagine what it is like to redo your life, musically, professionally, and privately, in the middle of a dense series of concerts all over the world (it’s just three years ago that Anthea and her young family started their Berlin adventure).

    Crossing fingers for this massive final stint, and good luck for the tricky switch from violin to viola and back. And good luck for the rest, too.