Arditti Quartet Does Best With Bartók

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Berg, Adès, Bartók: Arditti Quartet, presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 12.4.2012 (HS)

Best known for their dedication to contemporary music, often prepared together with the composers, the Arditti Quartet returned to San Francisco after a 10-year absence in a concert that began with Beethoven and Berg and ended with Bartók. In between slipped in a taut if somewhat cautious performance of music by Thomas Adès, the only contemporary composer on the program. The evening had its probing moments, but the quartet’s famous cohesiveness only emerged in the final work, Bartók’s thorny String Quartet No. 4.

To be sure, three of the four members of the quartet who last played here have been replaced. Only founder and lead violinist Irvine Arditti remains. Perhaps they are still finding their way with this music, because for most of the concert they seemed more concerned with just getting the notes together than with interpretation.

This was especially, almost painfully, evident in the opening work, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, Op. 133. Beethoven, of course, is not exactly in the Arditti’s wheelhouse. But that’s still no excuse for iffy intonation, long stretches of uninflected dynamics, and questionable articulation. An argument could be made that Beethoven’s complex, some say revolutionary, work presaged musical modernism. But it’s doubtful Beethoven had micro-tonalities and uneven sound quality in mind.

Much better was the Berg String Quartet, Op. 3, an early work that charms with rich sonorities and a toy box full of effects, almost as if to balance the dense dissonances. If the performance was short on passion, it achieved much better balances and clarity than did the Beethoven.

Things got better after intermission, as the quartet lavished pointedly delicate and atmospheric playing on Adès’s The Four Quarters. Commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation and debuted in 2011 by the Emerson Quartet (which has played it extensively), the four movements carry titles that mostly indicate what to expect. In the first movement, “Nightfalls,” a nocturne, the quartet articulated quiet, rhythmic staccatos in various registers against wandering lyric lines. The opening measures were magical, creating a mood in which we could almost hear the crickets and smell the jasmine. Next, in “Serenade: Morning Dew,” deft pizzicatos suggested light emerging from a mist. “Days” seamlessly tossed a medium-paced, quiet ostinato from one instrument to another. The finale, “The Twenty-Fifth Hour,” uses shifting and exotic rhythmic sequences of 25 notes. This was the one movement that didn’t quite come together, perhaps because the musicians had not quite internalized those complex rhythms.

All was well, however, with the Bartók. If anything, the musicians toned down the dissonances in the music and relied on the pungent rhythms to carry the momentum and the musical argument forward. It worked splendidly. The music emerged vividly and with cleaner articulation than the quartet showed in Beethoven or Berg. They reveled in all of Bartók’s musical effects, everything from fast playing on muted strings, rough pizzicatos, broad glissandos and col legno playing, all in the service of lifting the musical line. If the overall impression missed that last measure of flair, it should have sent the audience out feeling pretty good about what it heard.

Harvey Steiman