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Malcolm Arnold String quartet No 2; Helmut Lachenmann String quartet No 3

Harpham String Quartet, Purcell Room London, 7 January 2008

The New Year for London's music lovers means the PLGYA in the first week of January! Again the varied fare can be anticipated in the attractively produced programme book, covering PLG's most important annual week, but not forgetting their other endeavours for young musicians throughout the season.

The central image (an empty Purcell Room auditorium) might have been thought to tempt providence, but the first concert attracted a large audience and was a triumphant success for the Harpham String Quartet and PLG's programme planners, which are worked up collaboratively with those that get through the challenging audition process, for which the prize is this January appearance on South Bank and the possibility of being nurtured by PLG thereafter.

Some thoughts about their PLG programme book page may not be out of order. Nearly half of it is a huge photo; next comprehensive CVs, mainly of the individual members, which emphasise non-quartet activities. What chance do string quartets (three are featured by PLG this week) have to mature slowly as an entity and stay together, as some of the famous quartets of earlier generations did for decades? Googling them had the link above pop up, something of a shock - it brings you down to the reality of the chamber music life...

The bottom panel tells us a little about the canny choice of two contrasted works to fill their allotted hour. The prolific and hugely versatile Malcolm Arnold's No 2 (1975) is a powerful work from his Irish period which ought not to have slipped out of the repertoire. The Harphams went for it hell for leather at first, their tone emphatic to the point of stridency, bouncing off the wooden walls whch surround the Purcell Room on all four sides; I wished then that they had closed the curtains behind the stage. That sound quality was though more appropriate for the second movement, a 'wild Celtic dance' preceded by 'an impassioned cadenza' for the feisty eponymous leader.

They settled down in the richly sonorous slow movement (unhelpful to have it characterised as 'Shostakovichian') and by the end of the whole we had all been taken through a deep and moving musical journey, and one which established the high professionalism and polish of this very accomplished ensemble.

The Arnold set us up perfectly for Helmut Lachenmann's 'shout' or 'cry' quartet No 3 (2001), subtitled Grido in response to Irvine Arditti's wish that it might be louder than his two previous... This proved - for open-eared members of the audience - a total vindication of his introduction of a compendium of "new varieties of 'beautiful' sounds". Most of those were still very quiet, and not produced by the conventional passage of bow across strings.

The string quartet has come a long way since its beginnings, and remains in this newish century the most viable and enduring of all chamber music ensembles. Lachenmann takes its sonic potential far further along the route that began with the pure, austere sound nowadays to be heard on H.I.P. accounts of the early 18. C string quartets before the introduction of vibrato and portamento (later to be banished) with gradual accretion of other special effects and extended techniques as 'icing on the cake' to vary the basic sound of the 20. C quartet. But Lachenmann, the true radical, has thrown all limitations to the wind, and emancipated everything that can be done with any part of bow or the body of the instrument (q.v. Rzewski with the piano). We were told by the Harpham's note writer that in Grido he did so in 'five interrelated phases' but, given no clues, few of us would have been able to identify those.

A highly relevant note of commendation to South Bank Centre; I checked with several present who all confirmed that in previous years the Purcell Room had been bedevilled by sonic interference coming from the lighting or whatever. Tonight the auditorium was completely silent, making it a perfect ambience within which to relish Lachenmann's subtle inventions.

A richly stimulating and satisfying hour of music making, setting a high standard to launch PLGYA 2008.

Peter Grahame Woolf

For previous encounters with Grido see Lucerne 2002
and Royal College of Music 2006 :
Helmut Lachenmann and members of Arditti Quartet coaching Harpham String Quartet in Grido - - What emerged importantly was Lachenmann's insistence on accuracy of every written detail, be it tuning and intonation, dynamic levels to an extent that seemed impossible to attain (or for ordinary listeners to know whether it has been achieved or not) No effete pianissimos, and accents were to be sharp like rockets. Humiliating it was to be unable to hear the differences between the students' efforts and the Ardittis demonstrating how some passages ought to go...


Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series

Link to more from 7 & 8 January

(Some more still to be reviewed)