Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Arditti Quartet, JACK Quartet - Clarke, Mincek, Pelzel, and Lanza, 6 May 2013

Wigmore Hall

James Clarke – 2012-S, for two string quartets (2012, British premiere)
Alex Mincek – String Quartet no.3, ‘lift – tilt – filter – split’ (2009-10, London premiere)
Michael Pelzel - ... vers le vent ... (2010, British premiere)
Mauro Lanza – Der Kampf zwischen Karneval und Fasten, for eight strings (2012, British premiere)

Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlhers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

Christopher Otto, Ari Streisfeld (violins)
John Pickford Richards (viola)
Kevin McFarland (cello)

A hurricane had prevented the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet from coming together in November to present these two British premieres from James Clarke and Mauro Lanza. The Ardittis had nevertheless presented a programme of four quartets, one of them as shockingly old as to date from 2002-3, again a Clarke work, his first string quartet. Now we heard the postponed premieres, plus two more: Alex Mincek’s third string quartet (a London premiere, anyway) and Michael Pelzel’s ... vers le vent ....

Clarke’s 2012-S is written for two string quartets rather than a string octet, the point being the relationship between the two quartets, who sometimes play together, but at others pass material between each other, transform it, or, in the composer’s term, ‘contradict’ it. The quartets might, for instance, play at slightly different speeds, ‘all ... precisely written and timed’. Effort seems very much part of the sound – and the meaning? There is real violence in the conversation, and yet, even if at some remove, the quartet convention of ‘conversation’ seems to remain – as it did in this fine performance. Polyphony, even cacophony, is part of the extremity, and yet a sense of unity remains, almost akin to older homophony, and not only in the lengthy sustaining chords whose obvious contrast lies with much faster material.

Alex Mincek’s third quartet, ‘lift – tilt – filter – split’, concerns itself at one level with representation, in the composer’s words, of ‘physical shape, tactility, and movement’, the listener being permitted ‘to bounce back and forth from the recognition of the unique parts and the undifferentiated whole’. Near, though not total, identity, may often be found between one phrase and the next, but change, be it in ‘composite rhythm’, timbre, pitch, and register content, nevertheless occurs; there is not the slightest sense of static. Insofar as I was able to tell, the JACK Quartet captured that process very well indeed, proving fine advocates for the work. The performance opened as if on a coiled spring,  with tight rhythmic focus and attack. Quasi-echoes in harmonics offered a contrasting soundworld, as did the scurrying of high violins, perhaps echoing, if only accidentally, certain string writing of Schoenberg, which one might trace back at least as far as Verklärte Nacht. There was, in what seemed to me a clever piece of programming, a continued yet different sense of Either/Or – and not just on account of Kierkegaard’s bicentenary, celebrated the day previously. It may not be uncommon for a quartet, or indeed for chamber music more generally, to conclude by disappearing, as it were, into the ether, but this provides a spellbinding example.

Michael Pelzel’s string quartet, ... vers le vent..., was performed by the Ardittis. In three movements, it is perhaps in some senses more ‘traditional’. According to Pelzel, the first movement is intended to depart from the idea of ‘a passacaglia on a rhythmic ground with figurative variations, steadily digressing from its original idea until culminating in a homophonic line with great energetic intensity.’ There was certainly that sense of departure in the performance we heard, indeed from the very opening, viola answered by cello. The second movement offered a ‘frozen’ opening, vertiginous harmonics melting to a certain degree thereafter; Pelzel thinks of it as similar to ‘a film in which different narratives unfold simultaneously,’ but also draws attention to its role as something of a slow introduction to the third movement, ‘a scintillating, filigree and virtuoso “Toccata volubile”.’ The quality of a perpetuum mobile in contemporary terms was one that struck me before having seen the composer’s notes. There was, both in work and performance, perhaps even something of the quality of a latter-day Haydn, or better Bartók, finale: tradition present, but reimagined.   

Both quartets came together for the British premiere of Mauro Lanza’s Der Kampf zwischen Karneval und Fasten, inspired in some sense by Breugel’s depiction of the battle between feasting and fasting, which is broadened, as Lanza points out, to a conflict between ‘meat and fish ..., winter and spring, tavern and church, whose literary pendant can be the battle between [the monster] Quaresmeprenant and the army of sausages in Rabelais’s Quart Livre.’ Punctuating chimes – I could see neither where they were, nor who sounded them – and more than a little reminiscence, especially early on, from Lanza’s work with electronics at IRCAM made their presence felt. So did a slow sense of progression, more so, at least to my ears, than the dualism signalled in the title, which would certainly have provided continuity with works in the first half. I am sure the problem was mine, but confess that I did not find the work, however excellently performed, as compelling as its title might have suggested, at least until its rather magical coda-like conclusion, more delicate, fragile even. A second hearing would doubtless reveal more of the dialectic to which the composer appeals.