Sunday 27 April 2014

'The Arditti Quartet: 40 Years Young’ – Rihm, Hosokawa, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle, Dusapin, and Xenakis, 26 April 2014

Milton Court Concert Hall

Rihm – Fetzen I & II (1999-2001 and 2002)
Toshio Hosokawa – Silent Flowers (1998)
Ferneyhough – String Quartet no.3 (1987)
Birtwistle – Hoquetus Irvinius (2014, world premiere)
Dusapin – String Quartet no.5 (2004-5)
Xenakis – Tetras (1983)

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

A celebration in style for the Arditti Quartet: no fewer than three concerts throughout the day. I had hoped to attend all three, but in the event had to settle for just the evening concert, which boasted one of three world premieres, the others having been the third quartets of James Clarke and Hilda Paredes (Bitácora capilar). I also missed hearing works by Jonathan Harvey, Carter, Kurtág, Lachenmann, Hèctor Parra, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Ligeti. Still, what I heard offered a Birtwistle premiere, and works by Wolfgang Rihm, Tosho Hosokawa, Brian Ferneyhough, Pascal Dusapin, and Xenakis, so there remained plenty to fascinate to thrill, and yes, to beguile. A quartet which, since its first concert in 1974, has performed and recorded hundreds of new works, many of them Arditti commissions, has an extraordinary amount to celebrate looking back, of which this could only be a tiny fraction, but also still to anticipate, hence the premieres. The concert I heard was typically excellent, no fewer than six works granted advocacy as impressive as conceivable, indeed arguably more impressive than conceivable.

Rihm’s Fetzen (‘Scraps’) offered a wonderful ‘overture’, in many ways more individual than much of the composer’s music I have heard. The first is almost a mini-concerto, the first violin’s part more than first among equals; it put me in mind of Berg’s Concerto more than once, and indeed, much of the language of both seems recognisably post-Schoenbergian, the ‘Peripeteia’ of op.16 also coming to mind (despite the obvious differences in colour!) Repeated blows of demarcation bring the short movement to a close. Following a strikingly frenetic second violin opening, the second piece has the material taken up by the other instruments of the quartet; ‘mechanism’ at times seems somewhat Stravinskian, certainly quite a contrast with Fetzen I. The closing chorale, anything but triumphant, provides a fragile, even ghostly conclusion, the players’ hush not the least of this performance’s qualities.

Hosokawa’s Silent Flowers proved more abrasive than lazy Orientalist readings of its title might have suggested; this is certainly not Takemitsu. There is – and in performance was – a very strong sense of progression, of, as it were, the lives of these organisms unfolding. Kinship with Webern and Nono became increasingly apparent, though the work is – perhaps unsurprisingly – more expansive than the music of the former. The role of silences as well as quiet playing is particularly noticeable: one was, as with Nono and indeed Webern, made to listen. In the composer’s words, ‘Sounds also come from and return to silence.’

Ferneyhough’s third quartet concluded the first half. The expressivity, again not un-Schoenbergian of its febrile opening would persist throughout, making one listen again, albeit in a very different way. In a truer sense than the debased ‘neo-Romantic’ has sadly come to mean, and as remarked upon by Ralf Ehlers, this work, like Ferneyhough’s œuvre more generally, could readily be understood to stand as an idealistic heir to German Romanticism. There was irrationality, yes, but it was irrationality that was anything but ‘arbitrary’; Ehlers spoke of exactitude in notation that was yet akin to ‘notated rubato’. As with Schoenberg, something akin to the ‘Idea’ was the thing. Solo passages – for instance, the second violin at the opening of the second movement, the scintillating viola at its close – were as ‘expressive’ in their communication as the complex, yet never unduly complex, whole. Yes, as the composer put it, ‘the second movement explodes into an iridescent flood of irate images.’

Birtwistle’s Hoquetus Irvineus, dedicated to ‘Irvine and his lovely boys’, proved a winning pièce d’occasion with which to open the second half. The syncopations of hocket and something not so very far from post-Stravinskian swing offered an experience that both drew one in as a listener and was also, quite simply, good fun. Grinding of typical Birtwistle mechanisms propelled the music along, leaving one satisfied yet wanting more.

‘Ah yes, said Carnier, lente, lente, and circumspection, with deviations to right and left and sudden reversals of course.’ With those words from Beckett’s Mercier et Carnier, Dusapin begins the score of his fifth quartet. That ‘lente’ is certainly characteristic, though this is not a slowness that tires. The opening, high-lying first violin lyricism, accompanied by pizzicato from the others, certainly offered time to enjoy the view, whatever that may be, in properly Beckett-like fashion uncertain as to the destination, which may not even have existed. Quiet yet incessant chatter – late inheritance of Xenakis’s swarms? – offers quite another experience, prior to the relative resolution of the close.

Finally, Xenakis’s Tetras. From first violin to second violin to the quartet as a whole, the ‘uncompromising’ – perhaps a cliché by now, but surely apt in this case – opening proved characteristic of work and performance as a whole. The combination of novelty and familiarity to scales and arpeggios suggest a parallel, maybe alien world: more so, arguably, than the frankly extra-terrestrial ambitions of Stockhausen. One passage sounded as if it might have been musique concrète; I had to check that I was indeed listening to a string quartet. This final performance offered the commanding virtuosity of what, for this ensemble, has become a repertory piece. Silence at the close had no need to be enforced; it was the only possible reaction.