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Seen and Heard International Recital Review

 

The Arditti Quartet in New York: Arditti Quartet, Zankel Hall, New York City, December 4th, 2004 (BH)


NANCARROW: String Quartet No. 3 (1987)
CARTER: String Quartet No. 5 (1995)
LIGETI: String Quartet No. 2 (1968)
LACHENMANN: String Quartet No. 3, "Grido" (2001, New York Premiere)


Arditti Quartet
Irvine Arditti, Violin
Graeme Jennings, Violin
Ralf Ehlers, Viola
Rohan de Saram, Cello

 

I don’t think there is an ensemble alive that could play this program with the kind of uncompromising finesse and authority that the Arditti Quartet displayed on Saturday night. One could not ask for a richer, more erudite and yes, more passionate demonstration of what contemporary string quartet writing is all about, than this magnificently conceived evening. Four different works, all with the capacity to make even expert musicians sweat bullets, were served up about as perfectly as anyone can expect. These four musicians’ collective intellectual background, technical command and interpretive confidence all combined to make an evening that might be a model of contemporary quartet performance.


Coincidentally, it was the second evening in a row including music of Conlon Nancarrow, following Christopher Taylor's almost exhausting volleys at Miller Theatre, and it must be noted that as musicians become more accustomed to the demands here (and other composers reveling in complexity), the performances increase both in quantity and in quality. Nancarrow’s Third Quartet was written in the mid-1980s, when his somewhat reclusive existence came to an end – partially because recordings of his astounding player piano studies began to be circulated, and then he received a MacArthur Foundation grant, given to people with exemplary abilities in their chosen fields. MacArthur grantees may be able to be invisible before their recognition, but certainly not after, and Nancarrow’s light was far too bright to be hidden under any type, size or kind of bushel.


Similar to the Canons for Ursula, the three movements here are also canons, with the players entering at different speeds, in the ratios 3:4:5:6. The fast first movement ends with the musicians exiting individually, each with an upward glissando, and is followed by a movement comprised almost exclusively of harmonics. The final “measure = 92” with the ensemble whizzing around madly, and then near the end, they have to accelerate at different rates, ranging from 3% for the cello to 6% for the first violin, and meet simultaneously. Just accomplishing this task would confound most players, I suspect, but this group makes it look almost laughably easy.


Gyorgy Ligeti’s Second String Quartet is one of his most important works – “a thumbnail sketch of his aural wonderland” as Paul Griffiths wrote in his outstanding notes – and to my ears was the most thrillingly convincing piece of the entire program. The five movements are a bit of a smorgasbord, seemingly unrelated to each other but with such clearly envisioned and articulated sound effects that this becomes the unifying motif: the exploration of extreme instrumental techniques. (Remember, this was written in 1968, not in 2004.) The middle movement, Come un meccanismo di precisione, is filled with relentless pizzicati, and does indeed evoke some kind of small, slightly terrifying machine-like thing perhaps scuttling across the floor, followed by a hurtling Presto furioso, before the final Allegro con delicatezza in which the texture seems to dissipate into nothingness. The Ardittis dispatched this with the same assurance that many groups would award to Haydn.


The Carter, which I first heard last January, is an elusive work, but my ears began to warm up to it even more on second hearing. I don’t usually read while I’m listening (two competing sides of the brain), but in this case, I did look down to refer to the list of twelve sections now and then, to see if I could follow the composer’s road map. I was pleasantly surprised when I reached the final Capriccioso at the same time as the musicians. The writing here is transparent, almost like Webern, with hundreds of small incidents all scurrying about and gently bumping into each other, as the musicians roam through Carter’s sonic playroom. The work is cast in a single twenty-minute movement and seems not a minute too long. At the end, a cheering audience cheered even louder when the (almost 96-year-old) composer stood up, smiling and waving. The Fifth Quartet was written when the composer was a mere 85 years old, and my colleague and I agreed that at eighty-five, we will be happy just to be on the planet.


Lachenmann’s title translates as “I shout,” and there is little doubt that he is effectively doing so, pushing the boundaries of string quartet writing about as far as it is possible to go without using electronics. Gestures and textures of all kinds abound, with the musicians asked to scrape, scratch, scrub, tap and even vocalize a bit near the end. At one point, the group’s cellist, Rohan de Saram, appeared to be drawing his bow over the bridge but parallel to the strings, creating a wispy “not quite harmonic,” even more ethereal than the usual ones. Scores of unusual techniques create a landscape few listeners will recognize, but one that many will find unusually invigorating, which is why Lachenmann’s thoughts are so valuable. And notably, a virtually noiseless audience matched the episodes of silence, until the four musicians lowered their bows, relaxed and smiled, beginning a prolonged ovation.


After the wild applause had subsided somewhat, Irvine Arditti dryly acknowledged that the group has a reputation for playing the unplayable, and added, “now here is a piece that actually is unplayable,” and then offered a sensational encore, Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 33, arranged for string quartet by British composer Paul Usher. This dazzling adaptation might be somewhat more playable by human beings than the original study from which it is derived, but I wouldn’t advise your average person actually trying it.


Bruce Hodges

 



 

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