Tuesday 20 May 2014

300 Christmas songs: a Julian Anderson premier by the Arditti Quartet

Arditti Quartet - Photo credit: Astrid Karger
Arditti Quartet - Photo credit: Astrid Karger
Julian Anderson 300 Christmas songs: Arditti Quartet: Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Challenging programme of contemporary quartets from the brilliant Arditti Quartet

Julian Anderson (1967-) is the Wigmore Hall's composer in residence (as well as at the Guildhall School of Music and the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and tonight (Thursday 15 May 2014) he curated a concert at the Wigmore Hall including the world premier of his new work for the Arditti Quartet, String Quartet no. 2 '300 Weihnachtslieder'.

The Arditti Quartet has been termed 'single most important ensemble in the history of late-20th and early-21st-century music' by the Guardian's Tom Service. Set up in 1974 by Irvine Arditti, an East End lad, the Arditti Quartet has worked with major composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Brian Ferneyhough, Sofia Gubaidulina, Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow, Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis. They have won awards ranging from best contemporary CD (1984) for their RCA red seal recording of quartets by Carter, Ferneyhough and Harvey to the Académie Charles Cros Honorary Coup de Coeur (2004). Back in 1999 the Arditti Quartet won the 'lifetime achievement' Ernst von Siemens Music Prize for music. But the 'lifetime' achievement may have been presumptuous, as fifteen years later they are still performing - challenging composers and audiences alike.

The current line up includes Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (since 2005) on violin, Ralf Ehlers (since 2003) on viola, and Lucas Fels (since 2006) playing cello. All four pieces played were explorations of quality of sound rather than melody. Each had their own tuning – Irvine Arditti explained that they needed to use a different instrument for each work – and ran out of violins. Presumably there was hurried retuning in the interval.

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was interested in music emanating from a single note and how that experience can be changed by technique (bowing pressure, sul ponticello, sul tasto, pizzicato, trills, tremolandos) and by subtle (and not subtle) changes in pitch leading to dissonance and harmonic relations.

His String Quartet no. 4 (1964) is scored separately for each string – Anderson explained that Scelsi never actually notated his own music, relying on his assistant to transcribe him playing on a keyboard. In a blog on Scelsi Alex Ross talks about the controversy which ensued when this assistant, a fellow-composer, Vieri Tosatti, claimed that the music was actually his and not Scelsi's at all. Nevertheless this does bring up an interesting question about why it is scored for 16 strings and not four instruments, and whose idea this was.
String Quartet no. 4 was expressively played. As a newcomer to Scelsi I was impressed with the range of sounds the Arditti Quartet was able to make and just how evocative this music was. From the opening drone and occasional pizzicato we were presented with one tone, ever changing, sliding upwards and changing in register. From the wind rustling around a stone monument on a moor, it became ever louder and malevolent, reaching a sudden silence and ending with a few bars of stillness with whistling harmonics.

Helmut Lachenmann's (1935-) String Quartet no.2 'Reigen seliger Geister' was written in 1989 and named after the 'Dance of the blessed spirits' in 'Orfeo ed Euridice' (1762) by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). Similarly to the Scelsi, this was all about technique and sound quality. It was, in the main, quiet and airy. The performers were required to bow at various places on their instruments, including the wrong side of the bridge or at the nut, and some of the pizzicato sounds were achieved by strumming using a plectrum or similar instrument. While very self assured and technically interesting I felt that it went on just a little too long for me and that it was probably more fun to play than to listen to.

In contrast 'Officium breve' Op. 28 (1988-89) by György Kurtág (1926-) was more conventional and accessible in harmony, technique, and melody whilst still retaining the style of the first two pieces. It was included in the concert because it references one of Anderson's favourite pieces of music - the final movement of Anton Webern's (1883-1945) 'Second Cantata' – and what is the point of curating a concert if you cannot indulge yourself? When the tune arrived, with its elements of counterpoint and cannon, it was liquidly poignant in a way that it might not have been if the introduction has been less fragmented.

Julian Anderson. Photo credit: Maurice Foxall
Julian Anderson. Photo credit: Maurice Foxall
Julian Anderson's String Quartet no. 2 '300 Weihnachtslieder' was last on the bill. Anderson explained that although this and his first string quartet had been written for the Arditti Quartet, who he described as 'Gods', he only attempted writing the second after the first was premiered in 2013 (29 years after it was written). '300 Weihnachtslieder' takes as it source material 16th to 18th century German Christmas songs, and the spectra of church bells from the same period. In it Anderson used non-standard intervals, usually slightly more than a semitone which gave it an Eastern European or oriental flavour in parts, and he described it as 'the most complicated piece I have ever written'.

Each of the seven sections, the last three forming one large finale, has a festive name - 'von Himmel', 'resonet', 'schön leuchtet', 'ein Kind geboren', 'O Engel, kommt!, 'Gaudete!' and finally, with reference to his friends the Arditt Quartet, 'Leiblichm freundlich'. The endings of each were demarked by a few seconds of airy tremolando. While it did not sound festive it was evocative. A lovely watery effect was created by using pencils as bows, and bits of tunes floated here and there on the surface.

The remarkable Arditti Quartet took each of these works in their stride, bringing to each something different, and more than coping with the difficulties each piece presented, whether that was technique or tuning. They have been doing something right for the last 40 years – long may it continue.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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