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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (20)– Beethoven, Berg, Nigel Osborne, and Ligeti: Arditti Quartet, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 31.8.2009 (MB) 

Beethoven - String Quartet no.11 in F minor, op. 95
Berg - String Quartet, op.3
Nigel Osborne - Tiree (world premiere, EIF commission)
Ligeti - String Quartet no.2
Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

The Arditti Quartet playing Beethoven is not unprecedented, but it qualifies as ‘early music’ for these players. (For an interview in which, amongst other things, Irvine Arditti discussed with me the programming of the quartet’s two Queen’s Hall recitals, please click here.) This performance of the op.95 ‘Quartett serioso’ was though-provoking, not unlike hearing, say, Michael Gielen conduct one of the symphonies. The furious concision of the opening bars announced a fiercely modernist Beethoven: Bartók meets Webern. It was certainly not an old-world Beethoven we heard, though Irvine Arditti allowed an odd touch of portamento, for instance in the first movement’s second subject. And there was violence too in the coda, leading, quite rightly, to exhaustion rather than triumph. The second movement was songful, conversational, its counterpoint not unduly severe, though every note was made to sound as utterly necessary. There were perhaps even hints of Schubert in the sense conveyed of a melancholic onward trudge. Underpinned so often by the gentle security of Lucas Fels’s cello line, the harmonic implications were thereby permitted to flower. Also noteworthy was the varied use of vibrato, always expressively gauged, especially by Arditti himself. The transition to the scherzo was very well judged: somehow both seamless and rupture. Benefiting from a string rhythmic drive, the scherzo’s thematic profile was equally keenly observed, with only momentary relief expressed in the trio sections. There were, however, odd lapses of intonation here: surprising, given their distinct lack elsewhere, though their importance should not be exaggerated. I liked the initial sense of the finale’s introduction as the opening of the slow movement we had never had and its subsequent self-revelation not as that, but as the gateway to the Allegretto agitato. The Arditti’s reading was certainly agitato: febrile and intense, summing up the fierce concision of the work. And then: a brief glimpse of Mozart, Figaro even, in the quite delightful, joyous coda.

If I was provoked by the quartet’s Beethoven, whilst missing a little a sense of old Vienna – my problem, not the performers’ – then the performance of Berg’s op.3 quartet left me with no reservations whatsoever. The incisive delivery of the opening lines drew one in to an unmistakeably Bergian labyrinth, from which there was no escape, even had one wished to find it. Each player was indubitably an equal explorer and the whole proved so much greater than the sum of its parts. The intensity of expression and its quality – Romantic-expressionist, or expressionist-Romantic? – ensured that one listened not only to every note, but to its placing and to its implications. The ghosts of Viennese dance-forms, Mahler’s precedent still very much alive, came into focus fleetingly and just as quickly disappeared into the abyss. Indeed, the whole of the first movement came close to what Nietzsche so memorably termed Tristan und Isolde’s ‘voluptuousness of Hell’, albeit never lacking a distinct modernist edge. There was perhaps a still greater intensity to the furious opening bars of the second and final movement. Textural complexity was rejoiced in and turned to expressive ends, again an almost Wagnerian eroticism, which yet has precedent in Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. Through the cascades of passion, direction was always clear; indeed, such clarity of direction was vital to the articulation of Berg’s allegedly autobiographical outpourings.

Nigel Osborne’s Tiree received its first performance after the interval. There is no gainsaying – and why should one try? – the Arditti Quartet’s commitment to and expertise in new music, whether here or on other occasions. Tiree is so named after a ringing stone, ‘Clah a’ Choire’: in the composer’s words, ‘an erratic granite boulder carried to the island by glaciers in the ice age; it is cup-marked by many centuries of being played by percussive stones, exactly like the Neolithic rock gongs of Lake Victoria and the Serengeti (our planet is large, our human family small). The oldest known melody collected upon the island of Tiree, voiced by the two violins in response to each other, rather like an antiphon with halo-like accompaniment, is thus harmonised by these resonances, subsequently counterpointed by fragments derived from the fractal geometry of the coastline. And so, there emerges a piece that can truly be said to derive from its geographical and (pre-)historical inspiration: a sense of landscape that does not really rely upon pictorialism: not that there is necessarily anything wrong with pictorialism, but that is not Osborne’s concern. Nor, as his comparisons with Africa imply, is parochialism. The quartet makes considerable use of harmonics and non-traditional tuning, whilst remaining within a framework possessing some tonal references. Throughout the twists and turns, a sense of line – Ariadne in the labyrinth, I thought, referring back to Berg and also to Birtwistle – endures in a common thread: tribute as well of course to the skill of the performers. Inevitable reminders of Messiaen surfaced in the use of birdsong, but Osborne very much makes such material his own; it never sounded imposed upon the material, but grew out of it, likewise the stone resonances. Then, at the end, almost imperceptible but also very real, are heard the full resonances of the stone, its harmonics heard through a stone-metal plate speaker, ‘to enhance “liveness”’.

Finally, we were treated to an incendiary performance of Ligeti’s second quartet. The opening, notated silence and striking unanimity of the following pizzicato put me in mind of Horace’s ideal for the epic poet: ‘Nor does he [Homer] begin the Trojan War from the double egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.’ Thence composer and players swiftly transported us into the quasi-ether and equally swiftly into a world of neo-Bartókian violence. The intensity – that word again, I know – of this performance threatened even to surpass that of the Berg; its precision was equally astonishing and equally crucial. That calm which opens and intervenes in the second movement – Sostenuto, molto calmo – contrasted with duly ferocious outbursts, whose virtuosity was but a precondition for the still greater musical challenges set by the composer. The extraordinary ticking of the third movement, Come uno meccanismo de precisione, imparted a real sense of it not only taking place in time, but being ‘about’ time itself, before, in programme annotator Malcolm Hayes’s words, ‘retreating into the void from which it came’. Tension, violence, precision: the fourth movement embodied many of the qualities of the quartet and its performance as a whole. This was a Webern-like statement with absolutely nothing extraneous. The fifth and final movement offered intensity of a very different sort, stretching our ears in order for us fully to hear the crucial, minute variations in sound during this quiet but never still music: extreme in perhaps an even more radical way than what has gone before. Nono must surely have admired this music – and would surely have admired this outstanding performance. There was always a strong sense of dramatic flow, leading towards apotheosis – and then, this Ligeti’s masterstroke, escape.

Mark Berry

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