International Benjamin – 2

String Quartet No.5
String Quartet [UK premiere]
String Quartet No.4 [London premiere]

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

IRCAM – computer music
Gilbert Nouno – computer music realisation

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 May, 2005
Venue: Purcell Room, London

For the second of the “International Benjamin” series, the Arditti Quartet – following two excellent retrospective concerts at the Wigmore Hall – was on hand for a recital of new and recent works. Hard to believe that Elliott Carter’s Fifth Quartet (1995) is already a decade old: the shortest and outwardly the lightest of his quartets thus far, it has a sharpness of focus and clarity of thought to banish any sense of mere trifling. The six movements are divided by ‘rehearsal’ interludes and framed by an introduction and the briefest of codas, all of which allude to ideas and gestures heard or to come. This gives the work the feeling of a divertissement, alternately lively and thoughtful in manner, whose evolving character lies not so much in opposition between players as the differentiation between movements. Something that the Arditti perhaps leaven in the desire to present the piece as a unified entity, though this did not preclude an understanding of this Carter quartet as being wholly distinct from its predecessors.

To which the String Quartet (2004) by Hanspeter Kyburz made an admirable foil. Having segregated the types of music into ‘polyphonic’ (contrapuntal equality), ‘integrated’ (homogenous equality) and ‘solo’ (each instrument is accompanied by the others), Kyburz elaborates his quartet on this basis – its twelve sections throwing up some thought-provoking contrasts and,increasingly, similarities on the way. In particular, the solo sections act as a means of creating momentum which the others variously release or intensify. A touch didactic in its progress over the first few stages, the piece gradually establishes its own consistency – culminating in a taxing second violin solo which draws the polyphonic and integrated music either side into a purposeful continuum. Given with the commitment evinced by theArditti, this is a work that will do Kyburz’s growing European reputation no harm at all.

Jonathan Harvey’s recent and ambitious Fourth Quartet (2003) ought to have done the same for his standing. Indeed, with an elaborate computer component to create the impression of sound moving around three-dimensional space, this promised a radical new conception of instrumental writing such as was only fleetingly in evidence. Aside from the fact that each of the four ‘cycles’ (roughly equal in length over a 35-minute duration) seemed often to replicate functions of the Classical quartet form, the musical material was of little distinction or memorability as to make its spatial transformation neither distinctive nor provocative. The Arditti played with its customary conviction, and Gilbert Nouno seemed fully in control of the electronic realisation – yet while there are many possibilities here awaiting evolution, they need to be carried through with a greater attention to the music being transformed. But, as has been remarked on many times in other contexts, it is still only a beginning.

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