Aldeburgh Festival – Ferneyhough Premiere

Schoenberg
String Quartet No.3, Op.30
Ferneyhough
String Quartet No.5 [BBC Radio 3 and WDR commission: UK premiere]
Berg
Lyric Suite

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lucas Fels (cello)]


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 June, 2006
Venue: Aldeburgh Parish Church

The Arditti Quartet appeared at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival with a typically combative programme – placing Second Viennese School classics either side of Brian Ferneyhough’s most recent contribution to the string quartet medium.

Completed earlier this year, Ferneyhough’s Fifth Quartet follows its predecessor after more than fifteen years: during this time, the Ferneyhough idiom has been refined, even – in certain technical details – simplified, without any dilution of his music’s syntactical complexity or expressive impact.

The composer explains he originally envisaged a three-movement work, but that the volatile nature of the material led him to overlay these components in what became a continuous – 15-minute – process of development and also intensification. A process, though, that is not so hard to perceive in outline – especially when the ethereal harmonics that initiate the piece return on several occasions almost as structural markers to articulate the overall form. This, in turn, is defined by spans of greater or lesser motivic density that succeed each other in a (surprisingly?) direct accumulation of tension and release – as the music comes satisfyingly full circle. The outcome is thus a work that, perhaps as a reaction to his ambitious stage-work “Shadowtime”, finds Ferneyhough at his most uninhibited. Authoritatively played, it may well prove to be his most involving and also approachable quartet yet.

There was understandable concern late last year when it was announced that Rohan de Saram had left the Arditti Quartet after over three decades as cellist. Now, however, with Lukas Fels firmly ensconced, and Ashot Sarkissjan a worthy successor to Graeme Jennings as second violin, the quartet is playing as well as ever – its demanding repertoire and extensive schedule a challenge to be met head on.

The musicians brought lucidity as well as intensity to Schoenberg’s Third Quartet (1927) – most lucidly Classical of his cycle and the climax of the first phase of its composer’s involvement with the serial method. The juxtaposition of finely-contoured melodies and rhythmic incisiveness gives the opening movement an impetus that carries it through the outwardly conventional sonata process, with the Theme and Variations of the Adagio outlining an arc of intensity conveyed here with absolute poise. More could perhaps have been made of the formal contrasts in the third movement – another of Schoenberg’s restively Brahmsian intermezzos, but the finale was persuasively rendered through the way that its vigorous rondo theme is progressively opened-out on the way to a coda of intriguing equivocation.

If Classicism for Schoenberg entailed a revitalising of ‘first principals’, for Berg it meant a channelling of emotion so that gains in formal clarity were never at the expense of expressive impact. Thus the Lyric Suite (1926), with its ‘double trio’ of movements probing ever more deeply as they encounter ever greater reserves of passion. Almost nonchalant in the opening Allegretto, the Arditti found a viable sensuousness in the Andante, before the insubstantiality of the Allegro – its fleeting textures vividly drawn. The trio, however, could have had a keener sense of ecstasy, while the ensuing Adagio was strangely muted until the rapt intensity of its coda. The Presto lacked nothing in driving energy – and how good to hear the ‘tenebroso’ passages drawn into the prevailing momentum rather than rendered as static interludes – while the closing Largo was not so much desolate as drained; its tailing off effected with exquisite poise, as Berg’s vision of fulfilment fades regretfully from his mind’s ear.

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