Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice [Arditti Quartet]

Six Bagatelles, Op.9
Fragmente-Stille an Diotima
String Quartet No.2 in F sharp minor, Op.10

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

Claron McFadden (soprano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 October, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

This concert promised to be a highlight of the “Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice” festival, and so it proved. The Arditti Quartet is hardly a stranger to any of the pieces included.

Commencing with Webern’s Six Bagatelles (1913) made perfect sense in context, as it focussed the listening experience through a concentration on motivic essentials and on the syntax – as rigorous as it is rarefied – that connects them. Finely attuned as were the Arditti to the miniaturised dramas of the inner four pieces, they seemed even more responsive to the gestural compression of the outer two: here, truly, every nuance came across as the reduction of a far greater expressive entity.

Which, though extended from 5 to 37 minutes, was also true of Fragmente-Stille an Diotima (1980) – Nono’s only work for string quartet, which confirmed the onset of the ‘late’ idiom that represents a hitherto unexplored level of musical discourse. It was the Arditti that, some 25 years ago, revealed the greatness of a work about which even its composer had doubts – and, though only the redoubtable leader remains from that ensemble, the conviction brought to the music was evident from the start.

Essentially, this has to do with articulating the borderline between sound and silence so that the two become a single, unbroken expressive continuity. Although Nono was mindful of this in the notation and also annotations (notably the quotes from Hölderlin written into the score for the musicians to ‘think on’ as they play), the equating of sound with sense is for the quartet to convey and for the listener to interpret: a paradigm for the proactive listening necessitated by the composer’s later music. Allied to this is how one might approach a work that owes nothing to received formal models yet follows an audible trajectory of cumulative intensity: a temporal perspective coming into focus as the piece progresses to the point where it does not so much reach silence as cease sounding.

All of which scarcely prepares one for the stark and also sparse music, as it transcends notions of what music is there to do and how it should be responded to. It is worth noting that, whether or not most of the audience had a clear idea of what to expect, there was scarcely a cough or sundry disturbance while the work was in progress: testament not only to the power of the music but also that of the music-making. And the fact that Fragmente-Stille is being taken up by numerous other quartets rather suggests that it is well on the way to being accepted as a classic of the genre.

After the interval, Schoenberg’s Second Quartet (1908) hardly sounded like a retrogression, for all that the Arditti play the piece with demonstrably greater expressive poise than was once the case. This meant that the underlying anxiety of the first movement was evident more by inference than by emphasis on its structural markers (though the coda fairly melted away into resignation), while the scherzo yielded a wit that offset – without softening – the movement’s acerbic irony; the allusion to the tune ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’ that passes through the texture being made the soul of discretion.

Nor did the performance change course with the entry of the soprano in the latter two movements. ‘Litanei’ was an intensification of what had gone before, without the tonal follow-through of the music – however tortuous – being obscured. As responsive as was Claron McFadden to the oblivion of Stefan Georg’s verse, it was in ‘Entrückung’ that she came into her own – the poem’s sentiments becoming an ecstatic outpouring that connects the remoteness of the movement’s prelude to the calm of its postlude, with tonal stability not so much regained as transcended. Perhaps this and the Nono square a circle in music’s history: more likely is that they expound still-untried possibilities for its evolution.

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