Arditti Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Berio (Sincronie), Jarrell (in verästelten Gedanken), Feldman (Structures), Birtwistle (The Silk House Sequences)

Michael Jarrell
… in verästelten Gedanken … (Nachlese VIIb) [Wigmore Hall co-commission: UK premiere]
Harrison Birtwistle
The Silk House Sequences [Wigmore Hall co-commission: world premiere]

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 November, 2015
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Arditti QuartetPhotograph: Astrid KargerNow almost an ensemble in residence at Wigmore Hall, the Arditti Quartet returned with a typically combative programme astutely juxtaposing the ‘old’ and the new. It may be over half a century old, but Luciano Berio’s Sincronie (1964) – second of his four works for string quartet – remains an impressive piece from his most provocative phase. Essentially a free-flowing sequence of variations on the synchronous harmonic blocks head at the outset, the work utilises all of the expected playing techniques without ever degenerating into randomness; while taking in all manner of echoes and anticipations as it unfolds. The Arditti musicians have long had this composition in its repertoire such that the demands of unanimity and articulation pose few obstacles, though now with the sense that a more formal follow-through might well be teasingly within reach.

Next came a first hearing in the UK for … in verästelten Gedanken … (2015) by Michael Jarrell, a Swiss composer whose presence here has been occasional at best. Our loss, as the present work – the seventh in this composer’s Nachlese (Gleanings) series – is an eventful work in five movements whose designation by metronome markings (intentionally?) belies their appealing content and productive contrasts. So the initial movement’s pivoting around the note D, itself an overall feature, effects an animated discourse continued by the ensuing ‘scherzo’ with its tensile pizzicato; the third movement bringing forth haunting (if hardly nostalgic) evocations offset by the angular intermezzo of its successor, before the last movement returns grudgingly to that opening D and a closing ostinato of minx-like enticement.

Michael Jarrell (b. 1958)Photograph: CDaguet Editions Henry LemoineThe Arditti assuredly had the measure of this engrossing work, and also of Morton Feldman’s Structures (1951) that followed after the interval. Another piece with which this group has long been associated (memory recalls it opening a recital at the still-missed Almeida Festival that also included Brian Ferneyhough’s Third Quartet and Elliott Carter’s Fourth), Feldman’s piece packs a fair amount of incident into its eight minutes – the deft formality of its gestures suggesting it as a product of the composer’s early fascination with graphic notation, though the music is laid-out to the last detail. It was rendered with finesse, and it was a pity such efforts were in vain given several ruinous outbursts from the audience. This was an instance where these musicians might have taken a leaf out of Oliver Knussen’s book and given this work a second airing.

No such problems attended the first hearing of The Silk House Sequences (2015), the latest work for string quartet by Harrison Birtwistle – following on from the nine movements that constitute half of Pulse Shadows, then The Tree of Strings. The latter suggested a new level of formal continuity in its seamless unfolding, a quality pointedly denied by this new piece with the conflicting rhythmic patterns and metric layers such as inform its half-hour progress. These, along with the music’s wide intervals and varied playing procedures, could seem a throwback to the uninhibited modernism of Birtwistle’s earlier years – yet the by-no-means unpredictable trajectory is audibly of his maturity. Silk House is the composer’s Wiltshire home, a rural abode that might conceivably have given rise to a very different English music.

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