Ferneyhough – Intermedia alla ciaconnaRobert HP Platz – strings (Echo VII) (UK premiere)
Hilda Paredes – Cuerdas del destino (UK premiere)
Francisco Guerrero – Zayin I + II
Cage – Eight Whiskus
Akira Nishimura – String Quartet no.5, ‘Shesha’ (world premiere)
To say that the world of contemporary music owes Irvine Arditti and the Arditti Quartet an incalculable debt, whilst true, somewhat misses the point; we might be better to say that of the world of music. The Ardittis occasionally venture back even beyond Schoenberg; indeed, I heard them play Beethoven in Edinburgh, and, in an interview with me shortly before those performances, Arditti referred to Bach and Brahms too. But it is the twin abilities to present classics, albeit mostly of the twentieth century, as contemporary, and to present new works in a manner both excitingly of the moment and with all the insight that one might expect, say, the Amadeus Quartet to lavish on Mozart, that really counts.
Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaccona is a classic by Arditti’s and indeed by anyone’s standards. Twenty-seven years after he gave its 1986 premiere, Arditti ensured that it remained as visceral and as musical an experience as ever. Its ‘fictional polyphony’, to employ the composer’s term, immediately has one think of Bach’s great solo violin example: Bach refracted, in a sense descended from, or at least relatable to, Webern’s great orchestration of the Ricercar from the Musical Offering, yet also quite different, violently so – and of course an entirely new composition. A kaleidoscope of expression unfurls itself nevertheless through the means of a single instrument, within a strong, indeed awe-inspiringly strong, modernist frame. Arditti’s sovereign command as a performer had one believe this to be an experience akin to what I imagine hearing Milstein play Bach might have been. For me, this was perhaps the greatest highlight of a typically exploratory evening.
Robert HP Platz’s 2008 work, strings (Echo VII) received its first British performance. The quartet members gradually enter, one by one, Arditti first, the spatial conceit being their placing around the hall, only the first violin and the cello on stage. In the composer’s words, the piece ‘is a portrait of the four characters in a string quartet, each in his own space, his own time, like four galaxies in polyphonic space, four universes of a meta-universe, to be described by the theory of “strings”.’ I admit that I am not entirely sure what is meant by ‘the theory of “strings”,’ but anyway. It opens with relative reticence and indeed it takes the cello’s entry for the music to turn to what, with doubtless undue Romanticism, I might gingerly call more a passionate tone. Despite spatial separation, or in a sense through its offices, the instruments combine even to the extent of completing each other’s phrases. (Again, I thought of Webern.) It was not quite clear to me what the spatial element added; not that there was anything to which to object. But it was not quite Stockhausen either.
Hilda Parades’s Cuerdas del destino (2007-8) also received its British premiere. From the éclat of its opening pizzicati, via an array of expressive devices such as glissando tremolo and harmonics, and a succession of contrasting types of musical material, this made for a vivid, at times almost, though only almost, pictorial journey. There is a palpable sense of drama to the work – as there was to the quartet’s committed performance. The concluding section seemed both old – recognisable material from what had gone before – and new, that material being employed in different ways. It registered almost as a translation of a cyclical symphonic principle to the world of the contemporary string quartet: not entirely unlike the Arditti Quartet’s very raison d’être.
Francisco Guerrero’s Zayin cycle of seven pieces for string trio, written over the period 1983 to 1997, has yet to be performed in its entirety in this country. The first two pieces certainly made a powerful impression, whetting the appetite for more, the powerful energy inherent in both works and performances offering something of a revelation. Motor rhythms, post-Stravinskian in the best sense, offer again an array of expressive possibilities. At one point, the way in which the instruments seemed, as it were, to be pedalling uphill offered an analogy with which to grasp the music’s progression, but the best thing perhaps, especially on a first hearing, was simply to surrender. The virtuosity and musicality unleashed in performance were second to none.
Arditti then performed a solo work that could hardly have been more contrasted had it been taken from a much earlier century; arguably Cage’s Eight Whiskus is still more contrasted than, say, Bach or Biber. Apparently it follows on from an original version for voice, which Cage, in consultation with the violinist Malcolm Goldstein, reworked so that ‘the vowel and consonant qualities of the poem are transformed into various bowing positions, gradations of bowing pressure, and forms of articulation’. A fascinating idea, no doubt, yet what struck me was the apparently disarming simplicity of the piece: probably an illusion, but maybe not. I do not think, moreover, it was fanciful to glean some sense of translation from words to violin technique, even when one had no idea what the original text was.
Finally came the world premiere of Akiraa Nishimura’s firth string quartet, written to commemorate Arditti’s sixtieth birthday and dedicated to him. ‘Shesha’ refers, in the composer’s words, ‘to the name of a gigantic snake with thousands of heads , which appears in the Indian myth. It lives beneath the ground and supports the earth. Shesha’s awakening means the earth’s awakening.’ Indeed, without at the time having read the note, I sensed something of a kinship in the first section, that of Shesha’s awakening, to The Rite of Spring, intense and teeming with life. The apparent Romanticism – a relative term, I admit – of what followed was certainly impressive in terms of the Arditti Quartet’s performance, but sounded perhaps slightly as a reversion, even if one could hardly say to what. Perhaps, though, that was the point, as the second and third sections evoked ‘Samudra manthan’ (the churning of the ocean of milk) and ‘Amrita’ (the nectar of immortal life). What seemed as though it might be the still centre of the work actually proved to be its conclusion: an interesting confounding of expectations, even if those expectations were only mine. At any rate, the concert left us in no doubt that both Irvine Arditti and the quartet that bears his name will continue both to exceed and to confound our expectations.