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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Arditti Quartet at Wigmore Hall: Irvine Arditti & Graeme Jennings (violins); Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Rohan de Saram (cello), Wigmore Hall, 9 and 16 April 2005 (TJH)

Beethoven, Grosse Fuge, Op.133
Nancarrow, String Quartet No.3
Ligeti, String Quartet No.2
Dutilleux, Ainsi la nuit
Janácek, String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters)

Arditti Quartet, 9th April 2005

Wolfgang Rihm: String Quartet No. 12
Anton Webern: Six Bagatelles Op. 9
György Kurtág: 12 Microludes Op. 13
Bent Sørensen: Angel's Music (String Quartet No. 3)
James Dillon: String Quartet No. 3
Brian Ferneyhough: Adagissimo
Iannis Xenakis: Tetras

Arditti Quartet, 16th April 2005

It has been twenty years since the Arditti Quartet last visited the Wigmore Hall and, if nothing else, their two concerts on the 9th and 16th of April were an attempt to make up for lost time. Between them, the two evenings were fit to bursting with modern and contemporary string quartet music, with only two tonal – or mostly tonal – pieces wedged in for the sake of those less comfortable with microtones, clusters and extended bowing techniques.

Ironically, it was those relatively familiar pieces – both in the first programme – which caused the Ardittis most difficulty. Despite the vehemence of the Grosse Fuge which opened the first concert, there was little to recommend their Beethoven: highly suspect intonation and some noticeable flaws of ensemble produced a performance that wasn’t so much visceral as rough as guts. Janácek’s Second Quartet suffered similar problems, coming across as at least 50% more modern than it really is and severely wanting for any sort of Czech character. If the objective was to demonstrate these pieces’ inherent modernity, the approach backfired: they simply sounded under-rehearsed.

But there are hundreds of professional quartets out there tackling such basic repertory; the number who can play the astonishingly complex and endlessly inventive scores of Kurtág, Rihm, Ligeti or Xenakis is, on the other hand, severely limited. Unquestionably at the forefront of this niche, the Ardittis – led by founder and first violinist Irvine Arditti – are tireless champions of new-music, having commissioned hundreds of pieces by countless composers and premiered many more.

Indeed it was an Arditti-commissioned work that was the highlight of the first evening. Conlon Nancarrow’s String Quartet No. 3 was written when the composer was 75 and only just beginning to receive the international attention his highly individual music deserved. Each of the quartet’s three movements is built around a four-part canon in which each successive voice is in a faster tempo than the last. This means that in the third movement, for instance, the cello’s unhurried and slightly cumbersome melody becomes a sprightly dance by the time it reaches the first violin part. The complex, interlocking-tempi were convincingly handled by the players and the spectral shimmer of harmonics in the second movement was especially lovely, despite an untimely coughing fit from a member of the audience.

But the meat of the first programme consisted of two somewhat more substantial works, both of them central to the Ardittis’ repertoire. Their take on Ligeti’s Second String Quartet is considered nigh-on-definitive by the composer himself, and their performance on the 9th certainly had an air of authority about it, making perfect sense of its somewhat bipolar design. If the quiet, almost still passages that punctuate the work didn’t quite have the luminosity they can do, the noisier moments – such as the fourth movement’s Presto furioso – came across vividly, and their handling of the work’s wide variety of otherworldly textures was always entrancing. In Dutilleux’s ‘Ainsi la nuit’, however, the finely interwoven episodes – seven movements and four ‘parentheses’ – felt a little aimless, revolving obsessively around a handful of indistinct motifs. There was some beautiful playing here, especially from cellist Rohan de Saram, but the music seemed positively straight-laced next to the unflagging inventiveness of Ligeti.

The following Saturday saw an even more ambitious programme, featuring the work of no fewer than seven composers. If there was a common thread running through the evening, it was in the extreme concentration of the individual pieces on offer, each one focusing on one or two ideas before moving on. Webern’s Six Bagatelles best represented this impulse, each of the tiny movements an exquisite gem of utmost clarity, every gesture invested with meaning. The Ardittis’ performance was highly detailed, with a rapt stillness to the slower movements that belied Webern’s reputation as a heartless creator of musical machines.

Similar in approach – but quite different in character – were the Twelve Microludes by Kurtág. The twelve pieces were just as fleeting, but noticeably warmer on account of the folk music flavour underlying them. Even more aphoristic was Ferneyhough’s Adagissimo, which essentially consisted of two layers, the first of which – played on the two violins – was fast and highly discursive, while the other, a melody shared between viola and cello, was lugubriously slow. When the melody ended, so did the piece – making for a welcome contrast to James Dillon’s String Quartet No. 3, which didn’t know when to stop. Despite some intriguing moments, such as the skirling clusters at the end of the first movement, there was a paucity of truly arresting material in Dillon’s piece, and it didn’t take long for the abrasive, hard-edged quality of the writing to become grating. Indeed, despite being one of the longest pieces on the programme, it was the least satisfying, coming across with an uninviting self-seriousness matched only by the composer’s programme notes.

More successful was Bent Sørensen’s Angels’ Music, whose whistling glissandi swooped up and down in attractively gossamer textures. Melodies appeared and disappeared again, while the harmonies occasionally hinted at a concealed tonality, emerging now and then like sunlight cutting through a cloudbank. Again though, it all went on a bit too long, its material not really enough to carry a fifteen minute piece. Far more involving was the only established ‘classic’ on the programme, Xenakis’ Tetras. Here, a quarter of an hour seemed scarcely enough to contain the endless stream of squalling sirens and bizarre noises conjured up by this highly idiosyncratic composer. The Ardittis played their hearts out, unleashing a furious onslaught of sound at the work’s climax and investing the episodic structure with an unflinching sense of purpose.


But the real discovery of the second evening was the opener, Wolfgang Rihm’s 12th String Quartet, which – having been composed in 2001 – was also the youngest work on the programme. A piece that relied less on gimmickry and more on thematic development, its three sections (fast/slow/fast) merged seamlessly into a terrifically exciting musical argument. Though obviously modern, it was music that forged a clear link with the great quartets of the past, effortlessly taking up the mantle of Bartók and Shostakovich. The Ardittis, persuasive as ever, made it sound like a modern classic.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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