The Ardittis play Saariaho, Saxton and Birtwistle at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Saariaho, Saxton and Birtwistle : The Arditti String Quartet – Irving Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, violins, Ralf Ehlers, viola, Lucas Fels, cello – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 10.5.2011 (CG)
Kaija Saariaho : Terra Memoria (2006)
Robert Saxton : String Quartet no 3 (2009-2011) (world première)
Sir Harrison Birtwistle : String Quartet: The Tree of Strings (2008)

Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria is dedicated “for those departed,” so it is a sort of instrumental requiem. The music emerges from silence; slowly moving harmonies, with a pulse from the cello and considerable use of glissandi, make way for a strong section with ostinati and then a period of static harmony with patterns which glance at minimalism. Another forceful section gives way to tremulous music and fragments of melody. Then there is a period of contrasting loud and soft passages and another of rhythmically “start-stop” music. Overall, the idiom is chromatically dissonant, and the quartet writing is certainly assured. A main feature of the piece is the recurrence of certain cells, the reasoning being that Saariaho is attempting to convey the thought that we continue to remember people after they’ve gone.

This is obviously deeply felt and serious music by a Finnish composer in her late fifties now making an international name for herself. The music is emotionally gripping without using the numerous string effects she employs in a manner which is in any way exhibitionistic. Although I worried that the form seemed a little diffuse on first hearing, maybe my concerns would evaporate on closer acquaintance, and Saariaho is certainly a composer well worth looking out for.

Next it was the turn of Robert Saxton, who is one of our most important figures, yet is too often overlooked in favour of more “voguish” composers whose outputs too frequently lack his telling combination of craftsmanship and imagination. He says of his Third String Quartet that it creates a journey through five self-contained pieces, which nevertheless have an underlying overall unity. Each of the five movements is based on a scale or mode, and each has its own very clearly defined character. His overall plan certainly works well, and this music, immediately attractive on the surface yet meticulously well organised beneath, left a particularly strong impression. Central to Saxton’s thinking is a scheme of tonal centres which change in the course of each movement but take up from where the previous movement left off. This is in large part how he creates the feeling of journeying.

The first movement “Departure and Return,” opens quietly on the note D, to which it returns at the end. In between there is much activity within the limits of tonal clusters, the effect being one of burbling polyphony; it is extremely effectively written for the quartet and unselfconsciously beautiful. The exquisitely delicate second movement, “Winter Light” opens with long notes in harmonics, and gradually something more melodic emerges. Saxton has often shown a fascination for dance-influenced rhythms and the third movement, “Dance,” is vitally energetic, with some exciting and quite frantic pizzicato writing. The fourth movement, “Sea Ground,” employs a repeating ground, and the title also refers to the motion of the sea; once again the music is extraordinarily evocative. The fifth and final piece, “Continuing Journey,” is fast, and little by little we are taken back to the tonality of D, which is where we began, leaving the suggestion that so much in life is cyclical – the journey continues ceaselessly.

The Arditti Quartet gave a most sympathetic account of this fastidious yet striking music – Saxton could not have been better served, and his quartet deserves to go into the general repertory straight away.

After the interval, the Ardittis turned their attention to Harrison Birtwistle’s String Quartet: “The Tree of Strings.” This is Birtwistle’s second essay in the medium, and its starting point is the time he spent during the 1970’s living on the small island of Raasay, which is situated off the coast of Skye. I have visited the island myself, so was naturally interested in Birtwistle’s reaction to the place. The title comes from a poem by Sorley Maclean (1911-1996), a Gaelic poet who was born on Raasay and who returned to it frequently in his writings.

Raasay is remote, and its beauty rugged. There’s little doubt that the elemental climate and terrain would appeal to Birtwistle, but he does not set out to paint a tone-picture of the place. He discovered that any musical culture had been extinguished by the Scottish Presbyterians, but that music still seemed somehow to haunt the place, notably at a house close to his, “The Piper’s House.” Once upon a time, musicians would gather in this house to learn the pibroch, the music played on the Scottish Highland Bagpipes. It is the supposed memory of Raasay’s forgotten past which is one of the chief inspirations behind Birtwistle’s quartet.

The Quartet begins in tremulous vein, but it is not long before more dramatic strokes enter. From then on, and throughout the thirty minutes of the piece, the music is by turns abrupt, rhythmically propulsive, quietly misty, and, this being Birtwistle, sometimes there are two or more textures or ideas going on simultaneously. There are three sections during which the members of the quartet play in their own time without synchronising with one another. It’s not necessarily easy listening, but it is very theatrical. Roughly two thirds of the way through, the musicians, one by one, get up and take up new positions at the four corners of the platform; it’s enormously effective, with four quite separate characters doing their thing rather than taking part in something resembling a homogenous quartet. Then, one by one, the musicians leave the stage until only the lone cellist is left scrubbing a rather bitter Scottish riff, with steadily increasing pauses. Then even he leaves. The audience, tonight, knew not when to clap; this may not have been intentional, but it did leave one contemplating the silence against which the memories had been superimposed. An all too rare silence is also something one might still expect to experience on Raasay.

I wasn’t sure quite what to make of this at times bizarre piece; it was obviously brilliantly performed, despite a cello string breaking midway. It’s theatre of a kind, but there seemed to be such a multiplicity of ideas being constantly thrust forward that eventually I felt somewhat bemused – and I also longed for some more finely honed Saxton. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating work and it was a shame there wasn’t a bigger audience to appreciate a winning concert by the wonderful Ardittis, who continually enthral with their dedicated and virtuoso performances of new and unusual music.

Christopher Gunning