A Stimulating Programme from the Ever-Excellent Arditti Quartet

15/03/2018

Sciarrino, Hurel, and Andre: Jake Arditti (countertenor), Arditti Quartet (Irvine Arditti Ashot Sarkissian [violins], Ralf Ehlers [viola], Lucas Fels [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.3.2018. (MB)

Salvatore Sciarrino – Sei quartetti brevi (1967-92)

Philippe Hurel – Entre les lignes (2017, UK premiere)

Mark Andre – iv 13 (Twelve miniatures) (2014-17, UK premiere)

Sciarrino – Cosa resta (2016, UK premiere)

First, some early music – certainly by the Arditti Quartet’s standards: Sciarrino’s Sei quartetti brevi, the first of which was written in 1967, dedicated to Franco Evengelisti, added to with five further pieces in 1991 and 1992. Perhaps such a conception inevitably brings to mind Webern, at least for those of us with a centre of gravity in still earlier music, but it was only really in the second piece (that which was written first, in 1967) that he came strongly to mind in musical terms, at least in performances such as these, typically free of nostalgia. That intimate post-Webern riot – if you cannot imagine such a thing, just listen – was preceded by an opening movement of bowed whispers, transforming over its course, febrile yet always with a sense of a ground from which to take flight, into a language, perhaps even a world, of its own. A focused yet variegated – dialectics aplenty here! – third movement, suggestive at times almost of electronic sounds had in that respect much in common with the fifth piece, its short-wave radio intimations charmingly reminiscent of Stockhausen, even if only coincidentally. The ghostly swarming of the fourth piece in between seemed in retrospect, again if only coincidentally, to prepare the way for a final movement in which I sensed something sung, somehow ‘behind’ the harmonics, and yet which was imaginatively recreated by them. Perhaps we had reached the air of ‘another other planet’.

At the close of the recital, we turned or returned to some early music refracted – or so, on occasion, it seemed, the air of the Italian Renaissance both palpable and yet not. In Sciarrino’s Cosa resta, Jake Arditti’s countertenor, finely balanced between the unearthly and the earthly, led us through the inventory of Andrea di Sarto, as accounted for after his widow’s death in 1570: first straightforwardly so, reminding me – doubtless only because I had just heard it from English Touring Opera – a little of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, then more playfully, mysteriously, broken and prolonged, as if cleansed and invigorated by the air of the post-war avant garde. Recitative, almost, followed by arioso, almost, eventually blooming into something quite different: there was a true impression of back and forth, not only between eras but within the text, verbal and musical. Instruments would sigh, imitating and developing ideas from the voice, from the words. At other times, especially towards the close, something intriguingly mechanistic emerged; perhaps significantly, that came perhaps as resistance to something more ‘sung’, less ‘spoken’. Performances from all concerned, not least Jake Arditti, were as engaging as the work itself. I look forward to hearing the items for soprano and mixed octet that surround this piece to form Sciarrino’s Immagina il deserto. There was certainly much scope for imagination, of the desert and beyond, here.

In between, we heard works by Philippe Hurel and Mark Andre. Hurel’s Entre les lignes, like the first Sciarriano and the Andre, a UK premiere, was forestalled for a minute or so by an electronic contribution from an unwitting audience member. No harm was done and a little amusement afforded when Irvine Arditti asked: ‘Is that a Sciarrino telephone? If so, I want one.’ Contrast with the Sei quartetti brevi proved considerable, not least in terms of initial volume and directness of attack, which would surely have more than drowned out any audience contribution. The other thing that immediately struck me was that Hurel seemed to be working very much more within the generally accepted tradition of string quartet playing: the sound, if not the language, of Schoenberg and Bartók, for instance. (I was then gratified later to see his words quoted in the programme: ‘I made no attempt to explore string techniques; those I have used belong to the familiar vocabulary.’) Had I not known better, I might have believed the intensity of polyphony arose from more than four instruments. The relationship between harmony and counterpoint again seemed to spring from tradition, without being reduced to it. And yet, ultimately, the programming also spoke of possible connections to, or at least similarities with, the preceding Sciarrino work. Dialectical contrast between often clearly demarcated sections, and in internal, cumulative narrative played against one another. A highly dramatic work and performance seemed to grow out of the physical and intellectual nature and potentialities of the instruments.

Andre’s ‘iv 13 (Twelve miniatures)’ belongs to a ‘long series of solo instrumental and chamber pieces, iv,’ on which the composer has been working since 2007. These pieces were composed between 2014 and 2017, and given their first performance by the Arditti Quartet last year. The soundworld, at least at times, seemed to me closer to Sciarrino than to Hurel. Sometimes towards, if not quite at, the edge of audibility, they seemed occasionally to hint (not necessarily a case of influence) at Nono too, perhaps also, as Paul Griffiths suggested in his note, at Lachenmann. Extended techniques were certainly the order of the day here: bowing on wooden dampers, retuning and ‘mistunings’ (Griffiths), col legno playing, and so forth conspiring to create, in the composer’s words, ‘a music of disappearance’. Its ‘presented compositional spaces breathe, disappear, and leave behind shadows, traces, which is how this intimate piece works musically and eschatologically.’ Whispered confidences certainly spoke of a kinship, if only in this particular programming context, with Sei quartetti brevi. It seemed both to bring various tendencies in the programme together and yet also to question them – just as one might have expected from the ever-excellent Arditti Quartet.

Mark Berry

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