Not All String Quartets Are The Same:Gavin Dixon talks with the Ligeti Quartet

Not All String Quartets Are The Same : Gavin Dixon talks with the Ligeti Quartet (GDn)

The Ligeti Quartet are very rare breed, a young quartet who specialise in contemporary music. Gavin Dixon meets up with them to hear about getting to grips with the toughest music in the repertoire, performing at some unusual venues, and what to pick from the menu when you’re eating Japanese.


The Ligeti Quartet - Photo Credit Gianluca de Girolamo

When young professional musicians are difficult to track down, that’s usually a good sign. The players of the Ligeti Quartet seem to be as busy as any, and it took a good few weeks before we found a time that we could all meet up for an interview. In the end, we decided on late-night meal at a Japanese restaurant after what sounded like a strenuous three-hour rehearsal.

They had been working on a new piece with the Columbian composer Camilo Andrés Méndez San Juan. It sounded like he had been working them hard, but by the end minds were starting to wander.

Richard Jones, the group’s viola player tells me “Val [Welbanks, the cellist] decided what she was going to have over the course of our rehearsal just now, she kept leaning across and saying “I’m definitely going to have soup”. Then ten minutes later it was ginger chicken. Is it still ginger chicken?” And indeed it is. That sounds like a good recommendation so I order the same, udon noodles with ginger chicken. Delicious!

After some detailed discussion of the menu, the conversation turns to music. They are an unusual group; it is rare enough to find a string quartet that specialises in new music, but a young quartet who have their sights set on the most difficult of modern repertoire is all but unheard of. I ask how the group got together, and it turns out to be more complicated than expected. There were a few random meetings and shared gigs here and there where the players got to know each other. The world of contemporary chamber music is, it seems, a small one, so like minded players are inevitably going to meet.

“Something that brought us together” Richard tells me “was the First String Quartet by Gabriel Prokofiev. He asked us to play it in Oxford. That was the first time we had worked solidly together towards something. That was about a year ago.”

Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei’s grandson) is himself a bright young thing on the contemporary classical music circuit, and his music draws on all sorts of influences. His “NONCLASSICAL” club nights are the antithesis of the traditional chamber recital format. Playing in new and interesting settings is an integral part of what the Ligeti Quartet is all about, but his composition is at the more accessible end of the contemporary music spectrum. I ask if the style of his music has dictated the later course of the quartet’s activities, and I’m certainly expecting the answer to be “No”, given the name they have chosen for themselves.

“We don’t want to be pigeon-holed” says Mandhira de Saram, who plays first violin. Val agrees “We don’t want to be limited to playing one kind of music.” But there is one kind of music that is definitely at the centre of what the do, the modernist repertoire that poses the most difficult technical challenges a chamber performer can face. And those challenges are clearly what get these players going.

“When we do something like the Gubaidulina Third Quartet, we feel a real sense of achievement when we play that to an audience and they get something out of it.” True enough, Gubaidulina’s Third Quartet is a pretty full-on modernist work, but it’s not the toughest piece they played, and it becomes clear listening to the discussion of the new piece they have been practising this evening that it is harder still.

However, all four players are keen to stress that their concerts are more than just a contest with the notes, and prospective audience members should be reassured to hear that difficult modernist works only make up one part of their stylistically diverse programmes.

Patrick Dawkins, the second violin player tells me “We want to involve audiences as much as possible and be accessible in everything we do. We don’t want to play, for example, a concert of incredibly complex music just for the sake of it.” So their repertoire stretches from the gritty modernists, via one or two more established 20th century names like Kodaly and Ravel, all the way to the minimalism of Reich and Glass.

That brings me round to the group’s promising name. How, I ask, did they come to be known as the Ligeti Quartet?

None of the players is quite sure which of them came up with the idea, but the reason for it is clear. Richard says “We were unanimously enthusiastic about learning the Ligeti quartets, so it seemed like a good name.” They have already performed his early Andante and Allegretto (classic Ligeti, I’m told, as conservative as Communist Hungary required, but with premonitions of the distinctive style of his later years), and the First String Quartet is scheduled for the end of June.

So what about the Second Quartet? If ever there was a piece with a fearsome reputation it is this. The première of the work in the early 60s had to be repeatedly postponed because it took the players over a year to learn all the passages with artificial harmonics. This, I suspect, is the reason it hasn’t yet made an appearance on this group’s programmes. But no, I’m quite wrong, and questions about the Second Quartet don’t phase them at all. They are learning the Ligeti quartets in chronological order, and will turn their attentions to the Second towards the end of the year.

That’s not to say that they need the help of any composer to do what they do. Improvisation is becoming an increasingly important part of the Ligeti Quartet’s activities. At one recent event, at the October Gallery near Russell Square, players from the quartet performed a series of free improvisations inspired by the paintings of Kenji Yoshida. Improvising in this sort of context is, I suggest, a very different activity from performing the works of contemporary composers.

“Not necessarily” says Val “it is about confidence and knowing that, even though one of us might start doing something different, the others can take up the new idea and then go with it.”

“Improvising is not that different from normal quartet playing” according to Richard “When you are playing from music, there is a huge amount you do with it that is spontaneous, or that should be. You can’t plan a lot of the things that end up happening, so I don’t think it is a huge step to go towards improvising.”

It turns out that improvisations based on paintings are just one of the ways in which the quartet work with other art forms. They have a concert coming up in September where the ceramicist Marisol Jacquemot will be presenting work inspired by their programme. Collaborations with singers and dancers are also planned, including the première of a new chamber opera at this year’s Brighton Festival.

The relationship between visual arts and music brings us round to the question of performance venues. It is clear from the quartet’s programme of upcoming events that they do not limit their activities to concert hall and traditional chamber concert settings.

Patrick tells me “The venue is really important, because that is something that can put people off contemporary music. You hear a lot of discussion about why contemporary art is so popular at the moment compared to contemporary music, and I’m sure it is to do with the setting. The concert hall can be an intimidating environment for many people.”

Val takes up the theme “Contemporary music is like contemporary art in that how the audience takes it in depends a lot on the setting. You can have a fantastic piece of contemporary art outside and it will be really effective, but you put it in the sterile environment of a museum and it loses its effect. And the traditional concert setting can be much the same.”

Audiences seeking a relaxed and friendly atmosphere to hear some new music are likely to find exactly that at the Red Hedgehog in Highgate where the quartet are about to take up a residency. The venue takes its name from Brahms’ favourite coffee house, and the idea is to recreate the conviviality and artistic milieu of 19th century Vienna.

“It’s a great little chamber music venue” Mandhira enthuses “very intimate. Works like Gubaidulina’s Third Quartet and Camilo’s piece are really intimate pieces, and it is nice to be able to play really pianissimo.”

“And when everyone is so close” continues Richard “they can see the action and the interaction. With much contemporary music, like the Gubaidulina, it is all about the interaction between the players, so it is great when the audience can see that going on.”

Clearly, the Red Hedgehog is the ideal venue to hear the Ligeti Quartet. Their next concerts at the venue are scheduled for 15 May, 17 July and 25 September. Each event takes place on a Sunday afternoon, and lasts around an hour. To find out about these, and about the quartet’s many other upcoming appearances, check out their website:

Gavin Dixon