James Clarke – String Quartet no.2 (2009, London premiere)
Brian Ferneyhough – String Quartet no.6 (2010, London premiere)
Dai Fujikura – Flare (2010, world premiere)
Hilda Paredes – Canciones Lunáticas (2009, world premiere of complete work)
Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)
In a better, let alone ideal, world, more concert programmes would resemble this. New music, performed by musicians at the height of their powers, would stand at the very heart of musical life, as was the case until not so very long ago. There would remain plenty of opportunities for forays into the museum of the past, but it would never be permitted to overwhelm contemporary musical production. Some works would be better than others of course, but an acceptance of risk – goodness knows, we risk enough mediocre or poor performances of, say, Tchaikovsky symphonies from our major orchestras! – would accept that. Doubtless this would all be decried by many as madness commensurate with that depicted in the verse of Pedro Serrano, set in Hilda Paredes’s Canciones lunáticas, but it need not be so; nor has it been for most of our musical history.
Back to the grey reality of late capitalist society, however. James Clarke’s second quartet here received its London premiere, the first performance having taken place in 2009 at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The programme note hinted at why Clarke might not be the most readily accepted prophet in his own country:
The composer has written: ‘It is a quality of music and some of the visual arts that they do not communicate ideas in the same area as words. The substance is different. I prefer to allow the music to make a statement on its own terms and to avoid as much as possible the descriptive (including titles). … I believe that to attempt to describe the impulse or “inspiration” behind a work is to detract from its enigmatic potential and undermine the directness of its power.’Fair enough: it is a perfectly respectable, though not incontestable, point of view. However, it does not necessarily help a naïve listener get to grips with unfamiliar music. It might not therefore have been entirely unreasonable to have had someone else contribute a note. It did mean, though, that one could, indeed must, listen more or less without prejudice. I had certainly never heard the work before, and I doubt that most in the audience would have done so, though, given the apparent preponderance of ‘contemporary music enthusiasts’, I suspect a few had. The opening impression was of intense drama, relative extremes of instrumental range navigated by rather appealing, rapid, quasi-scalic figuration. Considerable use of harmonics soon imparted a suggestion, though only that, of electronic means. (It is perhaps worth noting how in many works the suggestion of such can be at least as interesting as the ‘real thing’.) Violence was certainly present, but it never seemed to be there for its own sake, likewise the use of extended techniques: rhetorical, yet idiomatic. Silences appeared to play an important structural and expressive part, at times reminding me of Nono. Repeated notes and their treatment took on an increasingly pivotal role too. This may have been ‘complex’ music but it bore an overpowering sense of direction. There was, moreover, within Clarke’s personal idiom, a real sense of interaction between the four instrumentalists: that is, ‘proper’ quartet writing.
Ferneyhough is another English composer more sung on what we still sometimes refer to as ‘the Continent’ than upon this Sceptred Isle. Here, the composer’s note was certainly informative, though I can imagine its density of expression – surely, not least a parallel to Ferneyhough’s music – eliciting a dismissive chortle from would-be bluff English ‘empiricists’. Give them a good dose of Hegel to read! Much of the composer’s recent work has sought to reconsider how ‘awareness of temporal space can be heightened or redefined by staging a discrepancy of adequation between the emplacement and unfolding of sonic materials and the time available for their individual reception’. This sixth quartet in a sense takes that process further, and, according to the composer, overlaps and embeds fragments ‘so as to create an unpredictable tangle of conflicting materials and time frames’. In practice, I was actually less sure. Yes, there was tangling; much of this is relative, after all. However, I fancied at least that I could perceive different characters to the musical fragments, as well as in their interaction. The latter was, perhaps, more the thing, though, in that the toing-and-froing – that makes it sound rather milder than it is – of musical ideas appeared generative of the composer’s trademark complexity. Process as well as result at the very least sounded discernible or imaginable, doubtless in part a tribute to the superlative performances, here as elsewhere, from the Arditti Quartet. Melody, and I really could not conceive of why one should not call it that, took on many forms: an extended solo for the first violin, here mesmerizingly performed by Irvine Arditti, and a surprising unison passage, as well as a more typical near-overload of melodic profusion, redolent in its way of some of Schoenberg’s writing.
Dai Fujikura’s Flare was a Wigmore Hall co-commission, with the rupport of André Hoffmann. Other co-commissioners were the Ishibashi Memorial Hall, Tokyo, and the Edinburgh International Festival, perhaps suggesting a performance north of the border this summer. Pictorial imagery was explicitly evoked both in the composer’s programme note and in the music itself: ‘When writing this work I imagined sitting round a campfire as a child, watching the embers flaring off into the sky…’. Very different from Clarke’s æsthetic, one might say, or from Ferneyhough’s, and surely it is, yet perhaps accidentally, there seemed to be points of contact, not least in the use of repeated notes. The Webern-like shards – melodic shards, one might say – with which the piece opened soon gave way to ‘a lot [certainly true!] of rather wild percussive sounds (pizzicato, left hand pizzicato, col legno, spiccato, bouncing bow, finger tapping, snap pizzicato, pizzicato tremolo) and then combines with the imagined reverse sounds of those effects’. Left-hand pizzicati not only looked like but even sounded a little like the banjo, whilst it was intriguing to hear the ‘reverse sounds’, not least some rich-toned viola playing from Ralf Ehlers: a little neo-Romantic for some perhaps (the writing, that is), but the overall conception, arch-like in almost neo-Bartókian fashion, had its narrative and, I suspect, musical justification.
Finally came the first complete performance of Parades’s Canciones lunáticas, the second and third of the three songs having been first performed at the 2009 Heidelberg Spring International Music Festival. Jake Arditti, son of Irvine and of the composer, joined the players in what again was a magnificent performance. His is a countertenor voice of considerable richness; his rendition was spellbinding, attentive to words and music, for he and the quartet did not merely perform but interpreted. There is obvious scope for interpretation in this very different sound-world, more ‘atmospheric’ perhaps, certainly highly evocative of night, the moon, and madness. Opening with a dark, lonely night, the moon our only witness, we move through a second song of lunacy – wordplay apparent between ‘luna’ and ‘lunáticos’ – to a final dance for the liberated moon in the meadow. Pierrot lunaire inevitably came to mind, and the soloist’s whispering suggested a new version of the old idea of Sprechstimme. Here, focused upon the letter ‘s’, a link was perhaps also suggested with some of Nono’s vocal techniques, though that may simply just have been coincidence. If one could hardly but think of Pierrot, that was not the only Schoenbergian reference, or at least suggestion: Verklärte Nacht came to my mind more than once in the first song, the moon’s passing by and disquiet – ‘pasa la luna, inquieta’ – proving, not least in Jake Arditti’s delivery of the line, a turning point akin to that half-way through Schoenberg’s sextet: transfiguration perhaps? Some imagery was almost straightforwardly pictorial – harmonics and glissandi, for instance – but it always seemed to make musical as well as narrative sense, likewise the iridescence of ‘for the moonstruck’ (‘a los lunáticos’) in the second song. The final dance of the moon, ‘a slowed-down version,’ according to Paredes, ‘of the Mexican huapango, that changes from ternary to binary,’ was fantastical, quite enchanting.