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Dusapin, Francesconi, Ferneyhough,and Kurtág

Arditti Quartet,
Wigmore Hall,
23 January 2007

It is no secret that the Arditti Quartet, having commissioned famous quartets composers such as Ligeti, Birtwistle, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Rihm, Carter, Dillon... (the list is endless) are probably responsible for every major string quartet since the 1970s (together with their American counterparts the Kronos).


This concert consisted of an exciting programme of UK premières by Pascal Dusapin and Luca Francesconi, alongside a London première by Brian Ferneyhough, and a recent quartet by György Kurtág.


After a slightly confusing change of running order, which rendered most of the audience unsure of what they were actually listening to*, the concert opened with Francesconi's Fourth Quartet, subtitled “ I voli di Niccolo ” (The Flights of Niccolo). The brief programme note informs us that the work is inspired by Paganini and the “violinistic tradition”, and contains fragments of works by Paganini. We are also told that this is the first work of Francesconi divided into movements, which probably came as a surprise to some of the audience. Having said that, by listening alone one would perhaps have not realised that there were separate movements, since certain sections (particularly those predominantly featuring pizzicato) were difficult to tell apart. * *


The piece opened in the time-honoured (read “clichéd”) manner of a simple colouristic exploration of one note – harmonics, pizzicati etc. etc. The movement continue in the less orthodox fashion of introducing resonance into the equation, almost in a spectral way, articulating the upper partials of a note that are naturally there, but undetected by the human ear. This morphed seamlessly (almost imperceptibly) into a monody, a literal klangfarbenmelodie , where each note is articulated with a different timbre, instrument or tone-colour. With this quartet, Francesconi has written a work worthy of the international artists who are performing it. However, in my opinion, it lacked the level of drama present in his ‘Electric Body' for violin and ensemble, given last year for Irvine Arditti and the Orkest de Volharding.


Next came Kurtág's latest offering for quartet, 6 Moments Musicaux, demonstrating almost 'extrovert' tendencies in comparison with Kurtág's earlier works, characterised by sparse textures and ruthless economy of material; so the word ‘extrovert' should not be taken too literally! Even though the movements were brief, and some did have elements of his earlier period with simple, no nonsense presentations of material, like little crystalline studies on a single selected idea, there was a greater sense of fluidity and even a dance-like Bartókian movement, but it still felt as though we'd heard it all before. It is a rather difficult situation to describe, knowing that what a composer is doing is good, and very well executed, but still essentially disappointing.


I had been told by the second violinist of the quartet, Ashot Sarkissjan, that Brian Ferneyhough had mellowed considerably in recent years, so I was looking forward to something slightly different from this piece, and I was by no means disappointed. In fact, it became the highlight of the evening. The work was formed by a series of intertwined trios and quartets, permeated by recitative-like solos, in a similar way to Elliott Carter's Second Quartet, forming structural interludes. The piece concerned itself with the development of three particular types of material which are never completely reconciled. This is done with all the density and complexity of Ferneyhough's other works, but also with a lyricism and clarity not usually associated with this composer. That said, there were still moments where the quartet was contorted into brief passages of interwoven lines reminiscent of Ligeti's ‘super-espressivo', where independent melodic lines are performes simultaneously, often with massive leaps and unpredictable contours, creating an exhilarating, but impenetrable mass of sound. Feneyhough's command of time was impeccable: the piece did not outstay its welcome, yet its conclusion did not come as a surprise, but a natural close just when it was needed, dwindling into slow oscillations and fragile chords. This was a fine work by a giant of British music, and this mellower brand of neo-complexity would be a perfect starting point for a newcomer to this sort of music. **


The final work of the evening, given a rather elevated status as the ‘epic' of the concert, was Pascal Dusapin's Fifth Quartet, based on Beckett's novel, Mercier and Camier, about two men constantly talking at crossed purposes, each only hearing half of what is said, and even then misinterpreting it, forcing the narrative into unexpected twists and turns. It all sounds very exciting, but in the piece itself all this was completely inaudible. It transpired that that was unimportant, since the music remained in an intense stasis throughout, with a tortured yearning usually reserved for Mahler or Shostakovich, but of course with a far more modern edge.


The glacial movement of the piece and its expressive melodic lines make a somehow satisfying whole, in a work which could all to easily have fallen into a definitionless sentimentality. In a sense, it probably proved itself to be the epic of the concert, since it demanded immense concentration from the audience, even though it wasof similar duration to the Ferneyhough.


The Arditti Quartet perhaps has a reputation as an impressive, but rather two-dimensional quartet, sometimes preferring notes to musicality. It could be said, however, that the repertoire they perform does not immediately lend itself to highly emotional playing. Indeed, Ferneyhough and Kurtág would normally be considered the prime exponents of ‘inhuman' music. However, this concert gave us a number of pleasant surprises, lyricism from Ferneyhough, extroversion from Kurtág and emotional playing from the Ardittis, who inevitably rose to every challenge thrown at them by repertoire of this complexity, and proved to us that there can be life in what can otherwise be rather impenetrable music.

Steven Daverson


*These problems tax audiences all too often. q.v. Frances-Hoad's trio vice Skempton's at PLGYA07;

**and last night a new work in Three Acts with no pauses between them, nor any indication that the whole evening would last only one hour!

*** See also Dusapin's piano concerto


AND Anne Ozorio's review of this concert for Seen&Heard [Editor]