S&H Concert review

Arditti Quartet: works by Adès, Nancarrow, Harvey, Scelsi & Xenakis QEH, 19 April 2001 (MB)

The Arditti Quartet have commissioned hundreds of works for string quartet over the years and three of them were on offer in this recital. With the exception of Jonathan Harvey's Quartet No. 3 and Iannis Xenakis' Tetras the music was disappointingly prosaic, even if it was wonderfully played.

Thomas Adès' Arcadiana (his first string quartet) is almost conservative in tone, so much so that it recalled Mozart and Schubert (and much else besides on its slow path from beginning to end). Its derivative nature is its chief disappointment: Adès' usual grasp of the inventive here showing signs of fatigue and numbness. The fast uneven numbered movements lumbered, the pastoral movements showed glimpses of idyllic imagery but largely the work remains emotionless to its middle core. Adès is still young but this work showed signs of an over-complex mind unable to grasp the complexities of the quartet form.

Jonathan Harvey's Quartet No. 3, however, was an entirely different matter - a taut, rancid-toned edifice that fragmented and defragmented in exhilarating fashion. Where Adès showed little desire to use the entire body of the instruments Harvey used bounced bow glissandi, harmonic trills and col legno battuto to thrilling effect. The sound was scattered like broken glass with solid string tone taken to its limit to achieve that distilled harmony. We had impenetrable silences, dissonant climaxes - a true dialectic between a harmonic world of dark textures and subtle ambience.

Conlon Nancarrow wrote little in the way of conventional music - and for that we should be grateful. His Quartet No. 3, written for the Ardittis, is a polyrhythmic work which has the quartet playing a different number of eighth notes in equal measures but at different speeds. Starting on the cello (at 3) and working up to the first violin (at 6) the works has a chainsaw regularity as it works down to first violin (at 3) and cello (at 6). It gives the impression of lasting very much longer than its 12 minutes.

Scelsi's Quartet No. 4, on prepared violins and viola (shunted up by several octaves) has a similar mechanic slant to its design - but its 'preparedness' at least achieves amplification where Nancarrow's echoes with tediousness. Low notes are rare (the cello's fourth string being heard just once) and there is a tonality which seems more monumental than the sound suggests. The performance was compelling with a fractiousness and brittleness to the playing which suggested the drawing of a long, sustained curve.

The recital closed with a true showpiece - Xennakis' Tetras. Again written for the Ardittis this work, once heard, leaves an unforgettable impression. It suggests a string quartet - but is much else besides with its homophonic interruptions and serial counterpoint. The most inventive of all the works played it breaks the seriousness of the quartet form with its crunching noises (hard staccato bowing suggesting boorish flatulence), plectrum-like pizzicato, and use of the entire instrument beyond the strings. The performance was as much one of intense musicianship as it was a multicoloured façade of imagery and humour. I cannot imagine it being better played than it was here.

The Arditti's pre-concert talk threw up some interesting chestnuts. We learned, for example, that Scelsi was obsessed by numbers - particularly the number eight. As the cellist Rohan de Saram told us, Scelsi actually died on 8 August 1988! Yet, this talk was marred by the serial interruptions of the interviewer, Humphrey Burton, who appeared to make the effort of being more unprepared than normal. In this case he thought that both Nancarrow and Scelsi were still alive. I can only assume he had prepared the interview via the programme notes, which certainly suggested this was the case ('Nancarrow moved to Mexico where he has lived ever since'). Such poor presentation does little credit to the cause of contemporary music.

Marc Bridle

The Arditti Quartet has recorded collections of Scelsi & Xenakis, both highly desirable acquisitions:

Iannis Xenakis with Claude Helffer, Rohan de Saram, et al. ( Montaigne - MO782137)
Giacinto Scelsi - 5 String Quartets etc (Salabert Actuels SCD 8904-5)

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