Arditti Quartet – 24 April

String Quartet, Op.3
String Quartet No.3 (Grido)
Ainsi la nuit
Piano Quintet

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

Thomas Adès (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 April, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Even by Arditti Quartet standards, this was a judicious overview of radical quartet writing – each piece illuminating some aspect of the others. Berg’s Op. 3 (1910), a throwing down of the gauntlet to the quartet tradition, set the tone for the evening. Its two complementary movements constitute a sonata structure as elaborate as that achieved by Schoenberg in his First Quartet, in an idiom whose harmonic freedom and rhythmic vibrancy anticipates the music Bartók was to write in the 1920s. The Arditti is certainly no stranger to this piece, yet a tendency to overload the expressivity of its more inward passages was a recurring factor: this is music whose pungent intensity responds best to an energetic, spontaneous approach – avoiding the turgidity occasionally evinced here.

If Berg looks forward over a decade, Dutilleux looks back two decades to the multivalent forms that Boulez and others were tackling in the 1940s and ’50s. Not that Ainsi la nuit (1977) should be seen simply as belated recognition by this most fastidious of composers of the Modernist convictions of his younger colleagues: the work builds on the subtlety of Dutilleux’s music from the preceding 30 years, refracted through a form of elegant complexity and inhabiting an expressive range deceptive in its understatement. The Arditti rendered it with due refinement and not a little guile – as befits music whose myriad recollections and cool soulfulness aptly define its Proustian inspiration.

Each of these pieces provided an appropriate context for the recent works which followed. For his Third Quartet (2002), Helmut Lachenmann has produced a work representing the furthest extent (so far) of Berg’s integration of form and expression. For all the fluidity of this music as it unfolds over time, there’s a focus to its follow-through – in what might be felt as five interrelated phases, rather than independent sections – which speaks not of the reprise, but the intensifying of initial ideas. This immediately distinguishes the piece from the composer’s previous quartets, their material generated through types of playing and elaborated according to the possibilities found therein. The result is a wide-ranging yet unified span which breathes completeness at every level, not least the sensibility of sound which has long been a Lachenmann hallmark, and surely never deployed so inspiringly as here.

This facet is the crucial distinction with Thomas Adès in his Piano Quintet (2001). Maybe the title should be viewed as descriptive rather than generic, for Adès has produced a single-movement work in which sonata-form conditions the music’s progress rather than motivating it organically. Brahms, most deceptively Classical of Classical masters, is present both in sound and balance, as in formal demarcation – an exposition repeat being provided for and duly taken in this performance. Whether the piece is – like the Dutilleux – a reinventing of established precepts or more wholly a gloss on their received understanding is uncertain. What is certain is the musicianship with which Adès and the Arditti negotiated the metrical subtleties and syntactic conceits of this thought-provoking work.

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