Arditti Quartet at Queen Elizabeth Hall [Saariaho, Saxton & Birtwistle]

Terra memoria
String Quartet No.3 [World premiere]
String Quartet: The Tree of Strings [London premiere]

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Arditti Quartet. Photograph: associated with the most radical music for the string quartet medium, the Arditti Quartet has never been merely about experimentation for its own sake and this programme demonstrated three approaches to quartet-writing wholly of the present while also making audible thought-provoking connections with the wider past.

Although having commissioned the vast majority of the ‘contemporary’ quartets it plays, the ensemble is not averse to tackling those that – in the words of Irvine Arditti – ‘‘…we feel we need to play…’’ and of which Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria (2006) is among the most recent. The composer’s first such work, Nymphea, reflected the centrality of electronic means on her instrumental thinking: two decades on and the present piece is a good deal more subdued, as the titular words ‘earth’ and ‘memory’ might suggest, though it builds slowly yet intently to a climax whose rhythmic repetitions are hammered out with remorseless intensity. The quartet-writing of Schnittke came to mind – not least in that, while Saariaho makes no overt allusions to other music, hers is still a score shot through with evocations of things past. Uniform though never monotonous in texture, it received a performance such as to suggest the composer might yet have more to say through this medium.

Both the other works were written for and premiered by the Arditti members. Having written two varied such pieces in the 1990s, Robert Saxton took a different approach again with his Third Quartet (2011) – its five movements being formally separate yet achieving continuity through what the composer referred to as a ‘domino’ effect of tonal relationships such as creates momentum from one movement to the next. Thus the opening ‘Departure and Return’ is both a prelude to and a microcosm of the whole, leading to the pensive intermezzo of ‘Winter Light’ then the tensile scherzo that is ‘Dance’, before the methodical slowness of ‘Sea Ground’ and vigorous conclusion of ‘Continuing Journey’ – bringing the overall process full circle while suggesting new departures. Interesting how Saxton – along with others of his generation – is seeking fresh possibilities in modal aspects of tonality that look to the musical past as surely as they are refracted through the conceptual lens of the present.

Past and present have long enjoyed a fruitful interplay in the music of Harrison Birtwistle, for all that he has fought shy of traditional forms. Even his ostensible ‘first quartet’ was a sequence of nine pieces playable as such or interspersed between nine settings of Paul Celan as Pulse Shadows. Over a decade on and The Tree of Strings (2008) moves closer to the genre without embracing it as such. The title is that of a poem by Sorley Maclean, a native of the Hebridean island of Raasay where Birtwistle made his home for several years and the virtual destruction of whose musical heritage by religious intolerance is integral to this work. Cast in a single half-hour span, the piece moves between relative slowness and rapidity (replete with elements of song and dance) as it amasses real momentum – climaxing in likely the longest continuous spell of fast instrumental music this composer has yet written; and which is itself undermined by the dissolution of the ensemble into four instruments whose isolation is made explicit by their withdrawal to the corners of the stage then, as each player breaks off in turn, away from the platform itself. A stark rounding out of a piece whose inwardness and vitality confirms Birtwistle’s appropriation of the medium on his own terms and to wholly personal ends. And soon to be recorded by NMC.

It also rounded off a recital which, whether or not it constituted a ‘typical’ Arditti programme, reaffirmed the present-day validity of the string quartet. Who would bet against any of these composers not continuing their association with the medium, or the Arditti Quartet being the ensemble of choice for their future endeavours.

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