It has taken Hans Abrahamsen almost half a century and the patronage of the idiosyncratic Winter & Winter label to become the Grawemeyer Award-winning overnight sensation. Pieces all hugely influenced by nature, such as Walden/Wald,Schnee and Let Me Tell You, have appeared on the W & W label since the turn of the millennium, after a silence which Abrahamsen chooses to refer to as his ‘fermata’ and have been positively received by listeners and critics alike. Readers probably won’t need reminding that the Barbara Hannigan/Bavarian Radio SO/Andris Nelsons account of Let Me Tell You was MWI’s 2016 Recording of the Year.
Winter & Winter: a more appropriately named repository for this repertoire and this composer can scarcely be imagined; it could almost have been devised specifically for him, and now we have an extraordinary disc of all four of his string quartets to date. They are performed in reverse chronological order - an arrangement that suits brilliantly. The most recent quartet is such a masterpiece, that placing it first allows you to assimilate its many virtues more readily, before you proceed to his earlier, though still accomplished, works. For this composer, an understanding of where he is now is more helpful than how he got there.
Abrahamsen has described the Fourth Quartet in the following terms: ‘The basic idea for my Fourth String Quartet was very clear to me: It should be quiet and soft music or to put it in a German term "Hoch im Himmel gesungen ..." (”High singing in heaven…”)’. It emerges from some sort of rarefied, glacial environment, from a tease of stratospherically high, vague pitches and otherworldly harmonics. One imagines Oliver Postgate’s ‘The Clangers’, bow-tied behind music stands and a rapt audience in some frozen, lunar Wigmore Hall. The sounds are precious, glistening and wonderful; they somehow elude our grasp. These flurries of snow are punctuated with brief silences. A swift pizzicato pedal forms a backdrop for the stratospheric fiddles in the second movement. This is quiet, tactile music that seems more formed, more worldly, still cool and unique despite some minimalist gestures. The third begins with quasi-jazz plucked string bass/cello, a strange middle-range pizzicato jam – described by the composer as a ‘deep groove’. Then a slow deep bowed sound from nowhere – an odd growl that reappears at the movement’s end. It startles – it also made me laugh. There is an improvisational yet at the same time perfectly formed feeling to this panel. How to tie these threads together? Well the snow has well and truly settled on the ground for the finale – a playful yet wistful orgy of shards and textures which evokes a Nordic Dance yet to be invented. The work opens up more and more on repeated listenings; this is one of the truly great quartets of the millennium to date – of that there can be no doubt. The Ardittis have its measure and its soul and the ambience of the recording could not be more apt.
In the brief Quartet No. 3, a tiny open-ended prelude precedes a longer movement, incorporating a weary, measured tread, not unlike the effect at the end of Britten’s last quartet. Somehow, this music is not quite so heartbreakingly sad, though. Perhaps this is less world weariness and more a reflection of trudging through uncompromising snowy terrain. There follows a flickering of vernal awakening, but this subsides all too abruptly into the slumber of the last movement. The snow is sticking. In this bleak episode there is a sense of something almost fighting to emerge. Perhaps it is the DNA of the Fourth Quartet.
No 2 (1981) emerged a quarter of a century before, long before the start of Abrahamsen’s creative silence. When I heard this years ago on an old Dacapo recording, it sounded rather brusque and in-your-face, but in the present context I like and get it more. The opening is also Britten-like, but gradually Abrahamsen himself comes into view. There’s a passage of gently rustling textures before the movement ends in somewhat expressionistic terms. The assertive chords that begin movement two speed up and adopt a minimalist pose, albeit one with harmonic intervals which may suggest Stravinsky, but I think the otherwise perceptive booklet note overeggs this comparison. The confident assimilation of a variety of plausible compositional strategies and solutions ultimately convinces that the voice is Abrahamsen’s own. The third movement again points forward (or back) to the gentle wintry music of the later quartets. Half way along, it seems to fade on a long unison, but then a strange organism re-emerges before fading into a tremolando-inflected stasis. The finale is launched with a frisson of expressionist leaps and minimalist scrubbings, before slowing into insistent repeated notes, again like hesitant, suspicious steps. A complex, shimmering chord triggers Ligeti-like figurations and an increase in intensity which builds towards a long deafening silence – oddly presaging the composer’s creative crisis.
The 10 Preludes (later renamed Quartet No. 1) again foretell the future, although inevitably I feel that Abrahamsen’s own identity is less evident here. The assertiveness of the First Prelude quickly subsides into something more tentative. The ghost of Stravinsky, who had passed away just two years prior to the completion of this , is perhaps more perceptible here. It quickly becomes clear that this is not a String Quartet in the traditional sense, and as each brief episode proceeds, there is a gradual but palpable sense of paring down via the Fifth’s insistent and gentle repeated chord toward the Ninth Prelude which, in a kind of naďve art sense, reveals the essence of this sequence. The final Tenth Prelude is the oddest of non-sequiturs - a baroque dance which is perhaps linked to the Vivaldi like progressions of the Eighth. I detected a distinct kinship here with Poul Ruders’ later Violin Concerto No. 1.
I have gushed about the artistry of the Arditti Quartet before, but I feel this is truly one of their best discs in a very long line. The concentration and conviction in their playing (and listening) is almost super-human. Abrahamsen is lucky indeed to have such seasoned and convinced standard-bearers, but it’s a two-way street; his later music in particular is so unique and compelling that it utterly merits the endorsement of such a brilliant group. The Winter & Winter sound is exemplary throughout. I have found it almost impossible to remove this disc from my player and strongly suspect that, come December, it will be in the frame for garlands.