Thursday, 1 November 2012

Arditti Quartet - Clarke, Abrahmsen, Saunders, and Rihm, 31 October 2012

Wigmore Hall
James Clarke – String Quartet no.1 (2002-3)
Hans Abrahmsen – Quartet no.4 (2012, United Kingdom premiere)
Rebecca Saunders – Fletch (2012, United Kingdom premiere)
Wolfgang Rihm – String Quartet no.13 (2011)

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

Hurricane Sandy necessitated alterations to the programme of this concert. The New York-based JACK Quartet’s absence entailed postponement of the British premieres of James Clarke’s 2012-S for two string quartets and Mauro Lanza’s Der Kampf zwischen Karneval und Fasten for octet. In their place came Clarke’s first string quartet and Wolfgang Rihm’s thirteenth. Two British premieres, then, rather than four, but all the works were new to me, and Clarke’s work was the outlier in being almost a decade old.

Its arresting opening proved typically uncompromising in its violence. Considerable use is made of glissandi, post-Xenakis buzzing, glassy harmonics: but this is no mere catalogue of effects. Themes, if I may call them that, or motifs are flung between the four parts with visceral abandon – as they were in the Arditti Quartet’s commanding performance. Dogged insistence and something akin to variation were revealed as two sides of the same coin, a ‘duet’ between two violins almost beguiling, likewise its successor for viola and cello. And yes, this ultimately proved conversational in a quartet tradition one might trace back to its founder, Haydn.

Hans Abrahamsen’s fourth string quartet was commissioned in 2010 but took twenty years to write. I wish I could say I thought it worth the wait. Again, there is an arresting opening: high solo first violin harmonics intoning a chorale-like tune. Joined by the second violin, then the viola, and then very briefly the cello, all using harmonics, the process is repeated. A second hearing, then, though of course in knowledge of what has passed before. I was intrigued by dim echoes of Bartók and perhaps even the viol consort in the opening of the second movement, before it settled down into a quasi-minimalist mode of expression whose mild motor rhythms and tonal harmony sounded more suited to a television film score than a stand-alone concert piece. The third movement consciously echoes the first, or rather mirrors it, opening with a cello pizzicato solo passage, joined by viola (again pizzicato), and so on upwards, rounded off, again very briefly, with an utterance sul ponticello by the first violin. The process, again, is repeated. Likewise the fourth movement echoed the second, apparently ‘planned,’ according to the composer, ‘as a dark and heavy counterpart but it turned out to be like “babbling” music of a child’. Though I clearly was not on Abrahamsen’s wavelength, there could be no faulting the response of the Arditti players, as committed here as elsewhere.

Rebecca Saunders’s Fletch concluded the first half in what sounded to me far more typical Arditti territory. In the composer’s words:

Fletch, n. (archery); the feather placed on the arrow, providing it with the capacity of flight; the feathered vane towards the back of the arrow, used to stabilise during flight. Fletch is a furious ongoing exploration of a specific physical gesture and fragment of sound.

The physical quality of tone was vividly, viscerally communicated in work and performance. Glissandi, rapid crescendo, trills, and more combined to far more than the sum of their parts, betokening a fascinating exploration of the instruments and their capabilities as much as performing techniques. There was on a first hearing a satisfying formal arc, or perhaps better progression, which put me in mind – how or why, I cannot quite explain – of a neo-Lisztian symphonic poem. It was an instinctive reaction, doubtless, but perhaps that was in keeping with the physical immediacy of the piece.
Rihm’s thirteenth quartet had the second half to itself. It sounded as if from another world, or planet, its post-Bergian harmonic language and motivic development more ‘traditional’, though none the worse for that. Formal propulsion clearly grew out of the material with a rhythmic insistency that perhaps owed something to Stravinsky, even to Henze. The one-movement formal compression inevitably evoked echoes of Schoenberg, though the concentration rarely seemed as extreme as his. A chorale-like passage – again! – was played with neo-Romantic abandon, revelling in the richness of its harmonisation. Developing variation, its roots in Schoenberg and Brahms, still has a great deal to impart.