Arditti Quartet – 2

String Quartet No.12
Six Bagatelles, Op.9
Twelve Microludes, Op.13
String Quartet No.3 (Angels’ Music)
String Quartet No.3

Arditti Quartet
[Irvine Arditti & Graeme Jennings (violins); Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Rohan de Saram (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 April, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This second of the Arditti’s weekend Wigmore concerts offered a more diverse programme than its predecessor, but one just as representative of the repertoire that this most uncompromising of ensembles has doggedly pursued in concert and on disc over its three decades of existence.

The recital opened with the most recent item – Wolfgang Rihm’s Twelfth Quartet (2001), its compact single-movement utilises what one might call a ‘Wagnerian’ symphonic format of a strenuous developmental allegro, framed by a sustained Lento which introduces the salient thematic material to be distilled in a restrained apotheosis. With its allusions to a range of music (not least by Rihm himself), this is a powerful statement – demonstrably in the Viennese tradition – which confirms this composer’s music as making its keenest impact when at its least indulgent. Certainly it left a stronger impression than Bent Sørensen’s Third Quartet (1988), in which a ‘Music of the Angels’ inspired by “Fra Angelico” can be felt in the ethereal music with which the piece moves into and out of focus, but whose lengthy central section fails to provide the necessary intensification through which the work can meaningfully evolve.

But then, even the most purposeful pieces can seem diffuse when heard in the context of Webern’s Bagatelles (1913). These miracles of concision never fail to astound in their combining of implosive emotion with the rigorous placement of every note and gesture. By their side, György Kurtág’s Microludes (1977) is more varied in content and – for all their keenness of expression and wrenching nostalgia – relaxed in character: a cycle of intimate recollection not without moments of drama or, indeed, humour. Suffice to say that the Arditti probed its heights and depths with customary insight.

James Dillon has been an unsung hero of British music in recent years, with works such as the Violin Concerto demonstrating how existent forms can be renewed from within. However, the Third Quartet (1998) comes as something of a disappointment. The cumulative interaction of its mutually opposing ideas along parallel axes akin to that of the cross is suffused with potential – yet, for all their inherent contrasts, the first three movements cancel out rather than intensify each other, with the lengthy finale is more a discursive commentary on the preceding movements rather than a dynamic synthesis of their content. In its systematic but never mechanical and clearly audible interweaving of canonic processes, Brian Ferneyhough’s brief Adagissimo (1983) leaves an altogether more potent and lasting impression.

As, in its very different way, does Xenakis’s Tetras (1983) – his second work for string quartet and one of his most vital statements in any medium. Few composers can have so painstakingly calculated the appearance of randomness so that it not only makes sense, but also does so with such immediacy andlack of inhibition. The highly differentiated playing techniques articulate a form both unpredictable and inevitable – resulting in a piece which, in the most creative sense, entertains as surely as it rivets the attention. As played by the Arditti, it is a reminder of what can be achieved when the musicians are so attuned. What will hopefully be less exceptional are the Arditti Quartet’s return visits to the Wigmore Hall.

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