Ligeti and Bartók Dominate the Ligeti Quartet’s Concert

18/02/2017

‘Melodicles’ – Ligeti, Mason, Harrison, Diabété, Bartók: Ligeti Quartet [Mandhira de Saram, Patrick Dawkins (violins), Richard Jones (viola), Val Welbanks (cello)]. Hall Two, Kings Place, 17.2.2017. (MB)

Ligeti – String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Christian MasonTuvan Songbook
Lou HarrisonString Quartet Set: ‘Estampie’
Fodé Lassana Diabaté (arr. Jacob Garchik) Sunjata’s Time: ‘Nana Triban’
Bartók – String Quartet no.5, Sz.102

‘Melodicles’, the title given to this concert as a whole, was a concept of Lou Harrison’s, referring to short motifs, inverted or reversed – perhaps one of the few signs in his music of his study with Schoenberg – to create musical modes. It is Harrison’s centenary this year, so it was especially good to have the Ligeti Quartet play some of his music. (I am not sure I have ever been to a concert in which he was featured before.) I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about this ‘Estampie’ dance from his 1978-9 String Quartet Set. Its simplicity has something to be said for it, I am sure, but I was glad that it did not go on any longer, beginning to tire of its single line melody, shared between first violin and viola, accompanied – for once, very much the right word – by busier, melody-less rhythm on the second violin and percussive use of the cello (knocking on its case, and so on). It was clearly very well played, though, and not at all unpleasant to hear; I was grateful for the opportunity.

On either side of the Harrison piece, which one might think of as imagined folk music, came two other folkish pieces. Christian Mason’s 2016 Tuvan Songbook is a transcription (and, to a certain extent, it seems, recomposition) of four traditional Tuvan songs. Two incorporated actual singing – although I was somewhat disappointed that it was not of the throaty variety one might have expected. The sharp rhythmic profile of the first, ‘Dyngylday’, strong on syncopation, augured very well, but I did not find its promise consistently realised. In the fourth, ‘Exir-Kara’ (‘Black Eagle’), it was intriguing to hear singing anticipated by some string extended techniques. Having said that, I found more to capture and retain my attention in the encore, Mason’s Mongolian-inspired Racing Horses, which seemed to me more a composition in its own right.

Perhaps I had just not been on the right wavelength, or in the right mood, for I felt similarly about ‘Nana Triban’, transcribed and arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik, from the Malian balafon player, Lassana Diabaté’s 2016 work Sunjata’s Time (a Kronos Quartet commission). Cellist Val Wellbanks had the tune, the rest the accompaniment. It was pleasant enough, but I could not help wondering how much had been lost in transcription.

On either side of those works – as if the programming itself were conceived as a Bartókian arch – were works by Ligeti and Bartók. Ligeti’s First Quartet revealed itself as a typical mixture of, or dialectic between, ‘process’ and ‘expression’. Its many short sections are highly contrasted indeed – and so they sounded here in performance. Violent, Bartókian outbursts were especially well handled, as was the bizarre waltzing section – and its humour. Subsiding into nothingness at the close was again very well achieved, so much so that the audience seemed unaware that the piece had ended.

Bartók’s Fifth Quartet is, by any standards, a towering masterpiece. Itself in the arch form I observed in the programme as a whole, it received an estimable performance (albeit not always helped by the less than ideal acoustic of Kings Place’s Hall Two). The first movement showed a true sense of musical obsessiveness, and not a little wildness, which yet never degenerated into lack of discipline. Night music and Bulgarian meter were in general vividly portrayed in the inner movements. In the finale, Beethovenian purpose, perhaps even method in the motivic working, was unquestionably apparent: inspiration in the very best sense.

Mark Berry

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