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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Aldeburgh Festival (3) Schoenberg, Ferneyhough, Berg: Arditti Quartet : Irvine Arditti (violin) Ashot Sarkissjan (violin), Ralf Ehlers (viola), Lucas Fels (cello) Aldeburgh Parish Church, Aldeburgh, 11.6.06 (AO)

In the context of Schoenberg’s Four String Quartets as a group, the Third puzzles me the most. After the Second, it seems like something of a retreat. What is Schoenberg doing ? But the Arditti Quartet, foremost exponents of these pieces, showed that behind its apparent reticence, the strengths are hidden in classical formality. This very lucid performance clearly showed how the main themes repeat throughout with variations. At times the playing was so understated, it reminded me of pipa music, plucked rather than bowed, self effacingly subtle. It set off the lyrical and lively passages all the more.

What everyone was waiting for, though, was the première of Brian Ferneyhough’s String Quartet No 5. It is so new that part way through, Irvine Arditti had to stop, ponder and then run backstage, returning with a few extra pages of manuscript. Presumably amendments were made at rehearsal. Good composers have always been open to improving their work in the light of performance.
This quartet, says Ferneyhough, “grew out of a long held wish to re examine formal variation technique from several standpoints simultaneously…..I have always been fascinated by disorder which offers insight into previous order – piles of stacked chairs blow over by the wind, or the twisted innards of a wooden roof laid bare in the wake of a tornado…..my quartet seeks to sketch out a number of dynamically unstable initial states which are then allowed to work upon each other in unpredictable ways…..”

Until I started writing this review, I hadn’t read this, so my impressions are far less sophisticated. What struck me was the vitality of the piece, bursting with ideas that change direction and shape as soon as they are grasped. Despite the hectic turbulence, there’s a pulse of inner logic which I can’t explain. Perhaps following the beautiful, strong viola line helped me to keep my bearings. There are bizarre, but fascinating, moments, such as when the notes collapse, deflating as if the air was being squeezed from them – and these are string instruments ! One violin, at least, was deliberately de- tuned, to add to the unpredictable effect. At one point there’s joyous tumult, then sounds so pianissimo they are barely audible. Tapped and plucked like a samisen, the viola tiptoes along, then builds a long, expansive chord that sounds like air blown from an unknown wind instrument. The cello seems to miaow the melodic figure, and suddenly, dramatically, it’s all over.

Back at home, I tried to recreate the memories by listening to Ferneyhough’s Fourth String Quartet, the one with the soprano singing. It’s been no less than seventeen years since that was written and Ferneyhough has developed so much since. Then, I listened to the Ardittis (albeit in different lineup and years ago) play Schoenberg’s Third and suddenly it made sense in context with Ferneyhough. In their very different ways, both are deconstructing ideas and recreating them anew.

After an experience like that, it took effort to concentrate on Berg’s Lyrisches Suite, no matter how beautifully and lucidly it was played. It is such a well loved piece that it’s pointless to describe in detail. However, I was again very taken by the dialogue between Arditti and Ralf Ehlers. The balance was exquisite, and the sensuousness of the viola made prescient the secret, coded love story behind the composition. The playing was excellent, so if I don’t do it justice here, it’s not on account of the Ardittis – simply that I was thinking of the new, unknown Quartet.

Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)