Wednesday 2 September 2009

Edinburgh International Festival (4): Hannigan/Arditti Quartet - Beethoven, Dutilleux, Webern, and Schoenberg, 1 September 2009

Queen's Hall

Beethoven - String Quartet in B-flat major, op.133, 'Grosse Fuge'
Dutilleux - Ainsi la nuit
Webern - Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, op.9
Schoenberg String Quartet no.2

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

The second of the Arditti Quartet’s two Queen’s Hall series proved at least as successful as the first ; indeed, I thought the Beethoven performance, on this occasion the Grosse Fuge, surpassed that of the op.95 quartet the previous morning. It was interesting to note, in the light of my prior conversation with Irvine Arditti, the nature of the audience. He had spoken of the presence of Beethoven as a potential way to make an Arditti programme ‘a little more attractive for the non-contemporary music aficionado: people interested in hearing string quartets but who are not exactly contemporary music specialists’. This is doubtless impressionistic or downright prejudiced, but my impression of the audience was that this was in large part composed of those more likely to be interested in the chamber music repertoire. If so, such listeners could hardly have had a better opportunity to be introduced to two twentieth-century quartet masterpieces: Webern’s Bagatelles and Schoenberg’s second quartet. About Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit I felt more ambivalent but it certainly received every bit as fine a performance.

Arditti also spoke of his longstanding ‘desire to put the Grosse Fuge at the beginning of a programme and continue with contemporary music, rather as a statement to living composers, like: “This is what Beethoven did; now let’s see what you can do.”’ This was not quite the nature of the programme here, but Beethoven’s extraordinary work fulfilled a not entirely dissimilar function nevertheless; it certainly sounded here, as it should, at least as shockingly modern as anything that came thereafter. I heard an audience member during the interval lamenting that Beethoven had ‘sounded violent’; surely that is the point. From the opening, which was jagged, angular, and abrupt, such music alternated, albeit with a weighting towards the former, with a Beethoven who could be sweet, gentle, but never, repeat never, cloying. Sparks flew in what seemed almost a masterclass in the expression of Beethovenian struggle and defiance. Although the scale and nature of the forces are entirely different, I was more than once put in mind of the Missa Solemnis and, during the slow episode, the Adagio to the Ninth Symphony. The rhythmical and metrical complexity of Beethoven’s writing shone through, in a way that must have appealed to Conlon Nancarrow when he lauded this quartet’s performance of both the Grosse Fuge and his own third quartet (see the interview again). Tonality at times almost seemed to be beside the point, certainly not in the case of having ceased to function, but instead of having at times ceded its leading role to counterpoint.

Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit seemed, as I said, to be performed extremely well; certainly the work’s structure was clearly delineated, as were its debts to Webern and to Bartókian night music. I also fancied that I heard a kinship – I suspect that rather than influence – to Messiaen. Prominent pizzicatos and playing sul ponticello added to the atmosphere. For whatever reason, however, I remained somewhat unreceptive, so shall move on to a very fine performance, following the interval, of Webern’s op.9 Bagatelles. Sighs, clarity, crystalline perfection, echoes (apparent or other) of the Grosse Fuge, great and minute dynamic contrasts: all of these were here. So was an aching, Schubertian beauty – how close Schubert so often stands to the Second Viennese School! – and a kinship of premonition to the Ligeti quartet heard in the previous concert, especially the sense of ethereal expiration. Above all, this Webern performance made one listen, reminding me once again why Nono so revered his predecessor.

This was the second time I had heard the Arditti Quartet perform both the Webern pieces and Schoenberg’s second quartet, the previous occasion having been a concert during the Southbank Centre’s Nono series. Claron McFadden was here replaced by the equally excellent Barbara Hannigan, whom I have previously encountered in a variety of challenging repertoire, including Nono and Berg. The density of Schoenberg’s counterpoint, so rich in expression, was conveyed from the opening of the first movement without fail. One could hear precisely what Schoenberg meant when writing, ‘In the first and second movements there are many sections in which the individual parts proceed regardless of whether or not their meeting results in codified harmonies.’ Programming and performance also revealed close parallels in this respect with the Grosse Fuge. Verklärte Nacht-like richness was revealed at times, yet sparingly, ensuring that appreciation of one’s harmonic bearings did not preclude following of neo-Brahmsian continuous motivic development. Harmonic nods to the First Chamber Symphony were unusually apparent in the scherzo. Still more prominent was a strong sense of how rhythmic and harmonic motion were as one. There was, moreover, a real charm to the celebrated quotation from ‘O du lieber Augustin,’ second violinist Ashot Sarkissjan and violist Ralf Ehrens providing just the right element of lilt and inflection, without resorting to all-too-audible inverted commas. This was poignant but clear-eyed, rather like the performance as a whole, a characteristic which in no sense precluded great intensity of musical expression – rather like Schoenberg’s œuvre as a whole.

There was a true sadness to the opening of Litanei, a passionate cello outburst from Lucas Fels preparing the way for the soprano entry: ‘Tief ist die trauer die mich umdüstert’ (‘Deep is the grief enveloping me’). Hanningan proved attentive as a Lieder-singer to the varying demands of Stefan George’s text and its implications: seductive and sultry, but also still and peaceful. The great final climax upon the word ‘liebe’ prepared the way for a peace of sorts, certainly a sense that everything had changed in the afterglow of the instrumental postlude. A very real sense of liberation could therefore characterise the instrumental opening of the final movement: hushed expectancy announcing the air of another planet. Entrückung, the movement’s title, was precisely what one felt: the ecstasy of transportation. The ‘soothing tremor of a sacred awe’ was followed by string-playing of an almost unbearable intensity, inevitably recalling Tristan und Isolde, as did the next stanza with its frankly Tristan-esque language, ‘atem wunschlos’ and all. When a ‘wild gust’ of wind gripped the verse, it felt musically as well as verbally inevitable, the product no doubt of so many years’ immersion in this endlessly fascinating score. The final stanza brought a sense of transfiguration: Wagnerian Verklärung. But there was also in the transfigured postlude ambiguity: where next? Schoenberg would soon embark upon his lonely, arduous, but necessary journey.