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Luigi Boccherini & Helmut Lachenmann String Quartets


String Quartets Nos. 19, 36, 55 & 90

Petersen Quartet

Capriccio CAP 67208



Grido String Quartet No.3
Reigen seliger Geister
(String Quartet No.2)
Gran Torso Music for String Quartet

Arditti String Quartet

KAIROS KAI0012662 [75 mins]

Editing a review journal can be like a wild merry-go-round veering amongst diverse artistic creations. Yesterday we were listening to string quartets by one of the first and one of the last innovators in this, perhaps the most fruitful of all instrumental genres.

Boccherini has a fair claim to have invented the true four-part string quartet with "chamber-music finesse and transparent writing for four parts" before Haydn emancipated the genre from the baroque Sonate a Quattro with his Op 20 Sun quartets of c 1772. These examples of Boccherini's ninety odd quartets date from 1772-1804 and make for delightful listening. That they are not better known can only have arisen because many of Haydn's own have had to catch up in public awareness, and maybe because promoters might legitimately fear that inclusion of Boccherini's name in programmes might reduce ticket sales? Whatever, alternating four of Boccherini's (in these perfectly played and recorded accounts by the Petersen Quartet) and Lachenmann's three made for a compelling day's spaced listening experience, interspersed with reading a few thought provoking pages of Rzewski's newly published book of collected writings.

Boccherini's music satisfies what Frederic Rzewski, in his stimulating new cornucopia, Nonsequiturs (MusikTexte), describes mainstream classical music as tending to follow a comforting orderly expectation (such as A -B - A), partly satisfied and partly controverted. This is a situation in which an undisciplined mind can easily wander, until something unexpected brings back full attention. Haydn takes the controversion of expectation to greater heights than Boccherini's.

Rzewski, whose book is currently absorbing all the time I can spare to try to digest its 300 packed pages, is writing in the context of discussing improvisation v. written music; he operates in both fields. The Road, his magnum opus for piano, premiered in full at Trinity College of Music, is fully notated; about it Christopher Fox wrote: In The Road Rzewski seems to be proposing a third category of music, private improvisation recorded as public composition. A debate between Rzewski and Lachenmann on these issues would be fascinating.

With Helmut Lachenmann there is no moment to moment expectation; anything can happen and, provided you are not immediately alienated and switch off, listening attentively to the c. 25 mins spans of these works is a continual adventure. However random his music may sound to the uninitiated listener, Lachenmann writes scores that are notated in meticulous detail, which he expects to be realised accurately in performance.

Lachenmann is one of Germany's most notable composers of 'new music'. His three quartets to date were commissioned by the Arditti Quartet, presented here in reverse chronological order, date from respectively from 2002, 1989 & 1971/78.

Grido, heard in Lucerne when still new, took our imagination as something very special:

Arditti Quartet (Nono, Neuwirth, Lachenmann) No international festival featuring contemporary music is complete without a visit from Britain's ambassadors, the Arditti String Quartet - - they dazzled overwhelmingly with Helmut Lachenmann's new Third String Quartet (2001/2002). In his programme essay Lachenmann does not discuss the new quartet, but talks of the 'fear and pleasure' of composing and his compulsion to find 'inner spaces for a new music'. Having thought he had 'dealt with' the problems of quartet writing in his first and second quartets, he surprised himself - 'the ordinary becomes strange again when the creative will becomes engaged and we are blind and dumb'.

Knowing only a portion of Lachenmann's output and how he tends to negate and avoid traditional ways of making instruments sound, I was intrigued by how carefully the Ardittis tuned before beginning. That this had not been superfluous soon became clear in a half hour's continuous, eventful and uniquely euphonious celebration of what Lachenmann seems to have conceived, and reinvented as is his way - a single instrument with limitless timbral possibilities mediated by eight hands and forty digits, bringing forth a cornucopia of beautiful sounds. If the string quartet cycle by the Canadian R Murray Schafer was my latest discovery of music composed for this inexhaustible medium at the end of the last century, Lachenmann's No.3 (The Cry) is the one to represent it in the new - -

Since then we have encountered it at the Royal College of Music's Lachenmann Festival last year, and in the Park Lane Group's Young Artists series at the beginning of this month. It is serendipitous that there is now a new recording of all three, made in the Beethoven House, Bonn in June & November 2006. Lachenmann breaks into the hallowed world of the string quartet with the assumption that the sound made by drawing a bow smoothly across a string, which requires years of training to achieve perfection, is but one of a myriad possibilities explored in Gran Torso, about which Ian Pace gave an important lecture at the RCM.

Reigen seliger Geister
is equally rewarding, characterised by - in the composer's words - "the nature of the flautato - - with the tonal space transformed into a landscape of variously structured pizzicato fields". The Kairos presentation is excellent, with essays by the composer and also by Martin Kaltenbecker, who provides a helpful listening guide to Grido with precise timings of the incidents he describes.

Recommended unreservedly; undoubtedly one of the most important releases of this new year and likely to remain so.

Peter Grahame woolf