Concert Review

Arditti Quartet, Avanti and Ensemble Recherche in Huddersfield.

In their different ways, these three ensembles can be regarded as custodians of modernism in music at a time of stylistic proliferation. The point becomes clear when it is recalled that the Arditti Quartet was established to rehearse and perform Penderecki's Second Quartet under the composer's supervision. Wwhile Penderecki has spent the last 25 years looking back towards, and trying to extend the era of late romanticism, the quartet has forged ahead, incorporating into its repertoire any piece that has genuine intellectual credence, irrespective of style. The range is impressive: from the improvisatory scores of Cage to the complexities of Ferneyhough; the essentially contemslative music of Scelsi to the expressionist intensity of rihm; the ethereal sonorities of Sciarrino to the raw energy of Xenakis, etc.

Besides a masterclass, and a workshop for young composers led by Brian Ferneyhough, the three concerts the Quartet gave as part of their residency at the 1999 Huddersfield Festival illustrated the breadth of their repertoire, as well as the fact that recent changes in personnel have not altered their commitment to new music.

The overall programme was astutely planned, beginning with a retrospective concert of some of the quartets with which they have been associated for many years. It provided a timely reminder that even at the outset of their career, their repertoire was characterised by stylistic diversity, with Jonathan Harvey's First Quartet, and Cage's Four set against the immense energy of Xenakis' Tetras, and the playfulness of Ligeti's Second Quartet. Their second recital, in which they were joined by the soprano, Claron McFadden, for Schoenberg's Second and Ferneyhough's Fourth Quartets, offered a snapshot of the way 20th-century music has developed, particularly the extent to which the challenge of 'making it new', which Schoenberg accepted almost as a matter of necessity, is now ignored by all but the most intrepid modernists. Ferneyhough's attempt to follow Schoenberg's example encapsulates the fragmentation of poetic and musical language over the past 100 years, and has thus become a key work of our time, at least as far as the relationship between music and text is concerned.

Accordingly, none of the items in their final programme - all dating from the 1990s - matched Ferneyhough's ambition. Hosokawa's Third Quartet has become one of the most frequently played of their recent commissions: a subtle and refined score which is entirely consistent with Hosokawa's output. However, hardly less impressive was Hilda Parides' Uy U T'an, whose complexity was well controlled and well justified. Thomas Ades Arcadiana did not reveal anything new about the composer, but Paul Usher's String Quartet could herald the start of a promising career. Finally, the impact of Guo Wenjing's Third String Quartet, for string quartet and Chinese bamboo flute, depended almost entirely on the haunting sounds produced by the soloist. In comparison, the writing for the rest of the ensemble was surprisingly conventional.

The two concerts by the ensemble Avanti, devoted to Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, demonstrated that the best Finnish music has been written by composers who have become fully integrated into the European mainstream. This has invariably meant studying abroad, and there is little doubt that their Scandinavian perspective enabled both Lindberg and Saariaho to synthesise the various influences they absorbed while studying in Germany and France.

Indeed, on the evidence of her most recent scores, Saariaho has become an essentially French composer. She has not identified completely with the precepts of spectral composition, emanating from Grisey, Murail, and their younger contemporaries, but her extensive use of electronics, allowing her to explore individual sounds in great detail, undoubtedly stems from an affinity with the basic philosophy of IRCAM.

The three works represented diffeaerent phases of her development but were not presented chronologically. Lichtbogen was the first work in which she combined electronics with an ensemble, but in an excellent performance, it became clear that many of Saariaho's long-standing preoccupations, such as the relationship between harmony and timbre, had already been established. The processes were refined in Nymphea, for string quartet and tape, together with a greater emphasis on the spectrum between pure sound and pure noise, but the significance of the more recent Lonh, for voice and electronics was that it not only revealed a different approach, but also prefigured Saariaho's forthcoming opera. Thus, the piece's structure was determined by the outline of the Troubadour song on which it was based, rather than the computer-generated transformations, while instrumental sonorities were replaced by environmental sounds.

In contrast, Lindberg has made greater use of 'live' electronics, and the works presented at Huddersfield, together with an illustrated lecture by the composer, showed that he has followed a consistent path throughout his career. One of the main features has been an interest in transforming one instrumental timbre   into another, but electronically-based scores form a comparatively small portion of his output. There is also a different emphasis, cogently outlined by Richard Steinitz, who suggested that whereas Saariaho disembodies the instruments, and their spirits become electronic sounds, Lindberg absorbs his electronics into pieces whose energy is primarily acoustic, 1.

Two of the works in Avanti's all-Lindberg programme - Ur and Joy - used electronics, the latter, extensively in a 25-minute score. However, electronics are given greater prominence in Related Rocks, for two pianos and two percussionists, thereby compensating for the comparative homogeneity of the ensemble. This is the most recent, and possibly the most successful of Lindberg's electroacoustic works, building on his earlier experiences. It has become closely associated with the London Sinfonietta's brand of virtuosity, and they performed it in the concluding concert of the Festival.

Ensemble Recherche are adding to their reputation as interpreters of new music by extending their involvement in music-theatre. Their latest collaboration, with Georges Aperghis, has resulted in the creation of Zwilicht, produced by the Marstall Theatre, Munich. This is quite different from Ensemble Recherche's earlier productions with Ligeti and Schnebel, though perhaps a continuing preoccupation with language may suggest a possible link with the latter.

Aperghis is performed more regularly at the Huddersfield Festival than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, at least partly because Richard Steinitz has created an audience capable of appreciating a conceptual, as well as a strictly empirical approach to music and theatre. The point of Zwilicht is to create a stream of consciousness arising from the seamless interplay between music, language and gesture. In the process, the members of Ensemble Recherche were integrated into the concept, not only in the way they related to their instruments, and to their speaking roles, but also as regards their interaction with the additional actor and soprano who functioned as central protagonists of the work. The prevailing mood of the piece was essentially reflective, and this tended to obscure the extraordinary virtuosity that went into its realisation.

Ensemble Recherche returned to more familiar territory with their second programme, which comprised the 17 short items currently making up The Broken Consort Book. These included all the tributes to Harry Vogt, marking his tenth year as Director of the Wittenertage fur Neue Kammermusik, plus a few British additions. 

All the pieces were related, in some way, to the celebrated English 'in nomine', though in some instances, the links were tenuous. Besides offering a fascinating glimpse of some of Europe's leading younger composers, the recital contained some interesting comparisons with their British counterparts, especially in the way they approached the well-known cantus. In essence, even the younger British composers were more respectful of the 'in nomine' than their Continental colleagues, and perhaps this provided an insight into the underlying nature of British music in general. It has an air of respectability which means that there is a degree of reticence when it comes to creating completely new sonorities, or exploring new forms of expression. However, as the Huddersfield Festival introduces British audiences to an even greater range of styles, this distinction may well disappear.

John Warnaby

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