Beethoven
Grosse Fuge, Op.133
Nancarrow
String Quartet No.3
Ligeti
String Quartet No.2
Dutilleux
Ainsi la nuit
Janáček
String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters)

Arditti Quartet
[Irvine Arditti & Graeme Jennings (violins); Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Rohan de Saram (cello)]
Brian Ferneyhough once suggested that concerts of new music should consist of 5-minute pieces separated by 10-minute intervals in which the music could be properly absorbed. One felt similarly at a certain point in this concert, in which, after Conlon Nancarrow’s extraordinary Third String Quartet, the Arditti Quartet launched almost without pause into the equally bracing discourse of Ligeti’s Second.
New music doesn’t quite describe the content of this Wigmore Hall recital, of course, but each piece heard here (except perhaps Dutilleux’s ubiquitous Ainsi la nuit) could lay some claim to radical pedigree. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, detached from its original context as it was on its first publication, has become something of an Arditti party piece, and if the present performance was not always in tune (a problem also in Janáček’s Second Quartet) it nonetheless thrived on a questing rhythmic impulse and a tonal polish which only set in relief the strangeness of Beethoven’s formal conception – as when deep, inscrutable silences intrude on the later stages of the piece’s progress.
After this, Nancarrow’s Third Quartet – written for the Arditti in 1987 and a rare omission from its Montaigne discography to date – was an altogether less familiar kind of strangeness, and I’m not sure the Beethoven was its most suitable programme partner. A quartet rendering of The Art of Fugue might have matched Nancarrow’s opening movement in contrapuntal severity, though the actual material of his strict mensural canons here had a curiously Schoenbergian feel – repeated notes and angular intervallic leaps. These brought human content and feeling which belied the mathematical precision of its rhythmic working-out – the Arditti being a collective master of both aspects – and made it, for this listener at least, an experience infinitely more rewarding than the same composer’s numerous player-piano studies. Even more astonishing was the still beauty of the slow second movement, natural harmonics and American pan-diatonicism, with time almost coming to a stop in a long, barely audible solo passage for first violin from which even the very audible coughing in the foyer could not detract (though those producing the CD for the new Wigmore Hall label may feel otherwise).
The Arditti’s experience again paid off in the Ligeti, and the musicians obvious familiarity with the work allowed them to communicate vividly the abrupt jump-cuts of what Ligeti has called his “deep-frozen expressionism”: as if traditional expressive types were being viewed in rapid sequence behind a pane of glass, so that subjective feeling is held at a distance and objectified. Only occasionally did the slight suspicion of over-familiarity creep in – of all Ligeti’s 1960s’ masterpieces it takes a certain alertness to make this piece seem ideally tight – but the time has certainly come when one can imagine younger ensembles bringing a rougher-edged freshness to such classics of the avant-garde. It’s particularly good, for example, to see the Quatuor Diotima offering a daringly imaginative programme of Fauré, Ferneyhough and Debussy for this summer’s Aldeburgh Festival – because Ferneyhough’s Quartets have been hitherto the almost exclusive preserve of Irvine Arditti’s team and as a result of that they have rarely been heard in concert alongside anything approaching ‘standard rep’, and because the Aldeburgh programme involves nothing that looks remotely like a make-weight.
A make-weight is how Dutilleux’s best-known chamber work, whose easy popularity I find only partially understandable, felt at this concert. Indeed, I doubt any audience member would have felt short-changed by having just Beethoven and Nancarrow in the first half and Ligeti’s quartet paired with ‘Intimate Letters’. As it was, this last product of Janáček’s Indian summer received perhaps the least rounded performance of the evening, by no means lacking in expressive ardour but short on folk-music earthiness and on that intangible but crucial sense of music as speech – here, a love letter to the ageing composer’s passive muse Kamila.
So, a mixed bag. The Arditti Quartet’s supreme and, indeed, essential role as mediators of new work is not to be gainsaid, nor the musicians’ immense energy and commitment – but as with all path-breakers, the ultimate proof of success must come in the opening-up of a wider field.

  • The Arditti Quartet’s second programme at Wigmore Hall is on 16 April
  • Wigmore Hall

 

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