Arditti Quartet & Nicolas Hodges

Inner Circle
String Quartet
Soadie Waste

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

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Reviewed by: Erwin Hösi

Reviewed: 31 January, 2006
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

Contemporary music for string quartet faces two concurrent problems: it is contemporary and it is written for string quartet – music that can’t seem to lose the notion that it is reserved for a specialised audience performed by an ensemble that even in its early days had the dubious privilege of being for exclusive circles. Whether it was clever or even wise to have this as a free concert, or the opposite, is to be left to the judgement of the reader. Still, a noticeable decline in the number of guests in the interval was perhaps inevitable; and yet even they showed a remarkable degree of discipline.

The need for this became evident given the fact that none of the pieces of the first half was shorter than 20 minutes and had stretches of extreme concentration – Wolfgang Rihm’s Interscriptum, a continuation of his String Quartet No.12, just as much as Philipp Maintz’s Inner Circle, a piece that betrayed influences from the more ethereal of 20th-century composers. However, with its more accessible structures, Hanspeter Kyburz’s String Quartet offered something of a foothold that was badly needed at this point of the evening.

In her comment on Rihm’s work, Alwynne Pritchard said that she admired works that extend the closed principle of a piece with a beginning and an end – which was just that aspect of the work that made it a task to listen to. With a hermetically concentrated Arditti Quartet, and Nicolas Hodges either integrated or merely altering the soundscape, there were indeed surprising effects and moments of expressive spontaneity. Still, one was left with the slightly awkward feeling of being lost in a seemingly endless work.

Following an interview with Philipp Maintz came that composer’s quiet, introverted work Inner Circle, built on the same kind of static formal concept as the Rihm. A pianissimo opened up a densely atmospheric field of occasional motivic reoccurrences, short phases promising the reassuring constancy of a pedal point and disappointing throwbacks into a quiet musical desert. Unfortunately, one of Ralf Ehlers’s strings broke when well into the piece, which gave Irvine Arditti a chance to begin and end a new career as a joke teller. Witten New Music Days commissioned Inner Circle, and Maintz has already been granted much that is out of reach of other composers of his age (among other things a staging at IRCAM and a post as composer-in-residence at Künstlerhof Schreyahn). It will be interesting to see how his career develops.

Hanspeter Kyburz’s String Quartet had some lighter moments, and the programme notes even gave an overview of its twelve sections. Composed after three compositional styles – one instrument isolated as a ‘solo’ instrument, the treatment of all voices as equal, and a ‘mixed’ contrapuntal, polyphonic style – this piece offered the variety absent from the previous works in the programme.

After this German-dominated stretch, the concert’s second half was reserved for British composers, again a well-established one next to a representative of a younger generation. In Paul Newland’s Mie there were moments of sudden silence that explored many of the possible effects of rests, from heart-stopping to rewarding or from confusing to a simple absence of sound. Newland has studied with Anthony Gilbert, Harrison Birtwistle, Michael Finnissy and Jo Kondo, and his works have been performed internationally.

The closing piano quintet, James Dillon’s The Soadie Waste, is more down-to-earth than the other works in the programme, and its rhythmic rigour and its frequent forte passages proved refreshing. The piece also provided an opportunity to witness the technical brilliance of the musicians, especially pianist Nicolas Hodges. With such a wake-up call, the evening took a turn that eventually made the whole programme seem worthwhile. That the BBC recorded the concert made sense, as this music is probably better listened to at home than in the concert hall.

  • Recorded for broadcast in Hear and Now on Saturday 4 March 2006 at 11 p.m.

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