The Arditti Quartet hosted a day long 40th Birthday celebration on 26 April 2014 in the recently opened Milton Court Concert Hall at The Barbican in London. It would be difficult to overestimate the impact the Arditti Quartet have had on contemporary music. The day contained music by Brian Ferneyhough, Harrison Birtwistle, Jonathan Harvey, Elliott Carter, Pascal Dusapin, Iannis Xenakis, Wolfgang Rihm, Georg Friedrich Haas (and more…), yet only two of the pieces (including Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2) were not specifically written for this ensemble. For those who haven’t yet been, Milton Court has a clear and warm acoustic along with a friendly and intimate atmosphere, and the exciting list of upcoming concerts suggests it will quickly become one of London’s premiere chamber music venues.
Through a labelling mixup, the programmes only arrived at the interval. There were, though, pieces of paper telling us what to expect and each piece was given warm introductions from Tom Service in conversation with the quartet. The Session 1 concert opened with Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No. 1, a piece that reminds you why Harvey is constantly considered one of the greatest English composers ever. Written in 1977, the piece centres around its opening melody, which the composer analyses and brutally recomposes throughout the work. The range of emotion, colour and texture is absolutely extraordinary, and it’s hard not to think how much Harvey had already said and done in this piece forty-years ago.
Though there can be little doubt of his addition to the quartet repertoire, Elliott Carter’s 5th String Quartet was somehow a little unconvincing in comparison. It certainly says something when Irvine Arditti quips: “the Carter quartets, you know, are quite tricky.” As in Carter’s earlier quartets, much of this complexity rages beneath the surface of the music. The fluidity of the transitions belying the constant changes of time taking place from one phrase to another. The few tutti moments in the quartet were powerful, but much of the piece – where the music would fall first on one player, then lift up and land on another – felt somewhat barren and disjointed to me.
After a brief interval, the music continued with two miniature gems from György Kurtág: Aus der Ferne III & V. It was wonderful to hear the quartet speak so fondly of Kurtág. Arditti pointed out that Kurtág has spent his life not as a teacher of composition, but chamber music. To a man, the quartet seemed convinced that this was one of the best musicians it had been their priviledge to work with and the subsequent performance was enthralling. Aud der Ferne III is made up of shifting constellations in the upper voices as the cello maintains a repeating pedal. Aus der Ferne V also featured repetition in the cello, while the pulse of that single pitch took life in the other players. These are full but, importantly, not overfull pieces. The composer says a huge amount without using too many notes, and they should be a much more standard part of the repertoire.
Finally, the concert culminated in Helmet Lachenmann’s Grido. This piece was described by the quartet as “a single story, a single line”. The piece was filled with narrative, drama and – if you will excuse the inexact phrasing – simply with so much music. The discussion around Lachenmann so often centres on timbre, but it was the counterpoint, melody and harmony that were so enthralling in this piece. The precision of his thought and writing, meant that he was totally in control of the longer-term idea and impact of the 26′ piece. The tectonic plates of structure moved steadily toward a climactic tremolo which beautifully slowed to single notes with small microtonal and timbral shifts.
It really is nothing short of a masterwork, and The Arditti Quartet played absolutely masterfully. Their totally convincing musicality is well-known, and the performances never seemed easy, or “here we go again”. Each piece sounded totally fresh, the players clearly absolutely convinced by and dedicated to the intentions of these four masters, whom they have so inspired over the years.