Queen Elizabeth Hall
Webern – Six Bagatelles, op.9
Nono – Fragmente-Stille, an diotima
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10
Arditti String Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, Ralf Ehlers, Lucas Fels)
Claron McFadden (soprano)
The South Bank Centre’s Nono festival continued with a concert from the Arditti Quartet, long the acknowledged standard-bearers for serious contemporary string quartet music. Each of the three works performed during this concert may justly be considered to have changed the face of twentieth-century string quartet writing, and indeed to have proved influential beyond the realm of the quartet or even of chamber music. Much, then, was promised, and the promise was fulfilled.
Schoenberg’s preface to Webern's Six Bagatelles has often been quoted, but I think it is worth quoting from once again, since it so perfectly – ironically, given the final sentence quoted – encapsulates the essence of this enduringly extraordinary work:
Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Each glance can be extended into a poem, each sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath, such concentration is only found where self-pity is absent. These pieces (as, indeed, Webern’s music in general) will only be understood by those who believe that through sound something that can only be expressed in sound can be said.
The Arditti’s performance seemed to me to have everything: pin-point precision was married to great depth of expression. Every note counted, as it must, both in itself and in terms of its relationship to every note around it, both horizontally and vertically. The mood swings of each of the ‘bagatelles’ – these are no more ‘trifles’ than those of Beethoven’s late sets – were registered, sometimes quite shockingly so, yet nevertheless without exaggeration. Perhaps most importantly of all, the underlying unified pulse was present throughout, irrespective of the subdivisions within the varied beat. This is as crucial to Webern as to Beethoven and Wagner, or indeed as to Nono and Schoenberg.
Since the Webern piece is close to unique in having in some sense prefigured Nono’s sole essay in quartet form, it provided a perfect introduction to Fragmente–Stille, an diotima. It should have come as no surprise that Nono’s preferred interpreters of the work – favoured over its dedicatees, the LaSalle Quartet – gave so fine, well-nigh definitive, a performance, but equally this should not detract from the Arditti’s achievement. Although the time-scale is utterly different from that of Webern, the concentration allied to a greater architectural span is not so very different. Once again, every note registered, but this is not straightforwardly pointillistic music; to register truly, there must be a sense of conflict between fragmentation and combination, and this was unerringly present. This was a performance that gave the lie to claims of political disengagement in late Nono, of which Fragmente–Stille may be said to be the harbinger. For the construction necessary from the Hölderlin-inspired fragments – Hölderlin’s letters to Diotima are quoted in the score, to be ‘sung’ inwardly but never outwardly by the players – is a perfectly political act, an act of hope, of forging a whole from the almost impossible fragments, from silence as well as from notes. Nono appears to be saying that, for there to be hope, which there must be, the string quartet, along with the symphony surely the most venerable of all Classical forms, must be rethought, rebuilt, and ultimately rejoiced in. All four players, individually and collectively, must engage in this enterprise – and so must the audience. For this to be possible requires a great technical and communicative achievement on the quartet’s part. The Arditti Quartet’s success was palpable, not least in the audience’s rapt attention. Throughout the thirty-five minute span of the work, I do not think I noticed a single cough or shuffle, let alone whispered conversation. Nothing was quite inaudible, but there is much to stretch our ears. Nono’s attempt to rescue the difficult art of listening was not in vain, for the work and performance that resulted were of rare beauty indeed.
Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet is, of course, one of the most celebrated works in the history of music, the work in which Schoenberg, feeling ‘the air of another planet’, bade farewell to tonality. A great achievement – perhaps too great an achievement? – of this performance was the sense of liberation imparted by the break with tonality. I ask whether this was too great, since Schoenberg, like Berg, though unlike Webern, did experience regrets, and there was something of a sense here of the first two movements at least being preliminaries to the undoubted triumph of the final Entrückung. There was nothing especially wrong with the performance of the first movement, but it seemed just a little generalised in its post-Brahmsian development. The second movement, marked Sehr rasch, exhibited a mixture of similarly slight greyness with more richly-coloured and daringly-shaped performance, ’cellist Lucas Fels shining especially in these respects. I have nothing but praise for the final two movements, in which the participation of the excellent soprano, Claron McFadden, really seemed to engage the players. Her pointing of the words and vocal lines, poised midway between Lieder-singing and a more operatic approach, seemed to me perfectly judged. The import, both literally and more metaphorically, of Stefan George’s words could not have been more strongly projected, without ever sacrificing musical concerns for ‘effect’. Likewise, the quartet sounded inspired both by her participation and by Schoenberg’s gradual move towards suspension of tonal processes during the Litanei and then the new world so unforgettably announced by the words, ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten’. This was not, of course, a world that rejected the past, but one which incorporated it. The same could be said of the Arditti’s performance of the two vocal movements, so precariously and yet rewardingly poised between late Romanticism, Expressionism, and already hinting at something yet newer to come.