The Arditti String Quartet Brings Out the ‘Impossible Brilliance’ of Conlon Nancarrow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nancarrow and Ligeti: Arditti String Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22.4.2012 (MB)

Nancarrow – String Quartet no.1
Ligeti – String Quartet no.2
Nancarrow – String Quartet no.3
Nancarrow (arr. Paul Usher) – Player Piano Study no.33

Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

This concert was the last event in a full weekend of events at the Southbank Centre, entitled, ‘Impossible Brilliance: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow’. It may seem perverse to have attended only a concert without player piano music, but such was what my schedule allowed, and I was keen to hear at least something. Nevertheless, it was a pity to have missed the complete studies for player piano and a London Sinfonietta concert that programmed Nancarrow with Cage, Ligeti, and James Tenney, not to mention the parallel-running conference.

Though Nancarrow wrote three string quartets, the second is apparently not only unfinished but also unperformable. If that sounds like a challenge waiting to be surmounted, then we should doubtless bear in mind that the Arditti Quartet is not known for flinching in the face of such challenges. The first quartet is an early work, written just before the composer’s turn away from live performers. I was struck by the tonal characteristics of its harmony, as well as the harbingers of things to come: canon, of course, but also the simultaneous use of different tempos. What registered perhaps most strongly, both in terms of work and performance, was the primacy of rhythm, its propelling force of liberation undeniable, though the relative repose of the second movement nurtured a melodic gift to a degree one might almost consider ‘conventional’, were that not so loaded a term. Nancarrow apparently showed the work to the Ardittis at the greatly-missed Almeida Festival in London, and the players, to the composer’s astonishment, sight-read it without obvious difficulty. There was certainly no impression here of anything other than a quartet in the bones of the players.

Ligeti’s astonishing second quartet followed, doubtless a tribute to Ligeti’s role in bringing Nancarrow and his music to greater attention, though this 1968 work was written more than a decade before Ligeti encountered the composer’s music (1980). This again is prime Arditti territory. Correspondences between Ligeti and Nancarrow were evident in context, though as Tim Rutherford-Johnson notes in the programme, ‘whilst Nancarrow de-mechanised his music when writing for string quartet, Ligeti sought to mechanise it.’ That said, and whilst one noted the use of canon as an obvious point in common, Ligeti’s music, even when mechanised, above all in ticking third movement, Come uno meccanismo de precisione, sounded wondrously free. Clocks and clouds worked their magic in what must surely rank as one of the greatest successors to Bartók and Webern in the twentieth-century quartet repertoire. This was every bit as fine a performance as that I heard from the Arditti Quartet at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival.

Nancarrow’s Third Quartet, described by Rutherford-Johnson as ‘possibly Nancarrow’s most significant statement for live performers’, received an equally thrilling performance. There could be no doubt that this was mature Nancarrow, despite the ‘concessions’, for want of a better word, necessary to render it playable. Once again the primacy of rhythm and canonic writing was audible for the most naïve of first-time listeners. Yet, at a certain point, one could hardly fail also to register the use of other, more obvious ‘string-based’ techniques, and more importantly their expressive content: the harmonics of the second movement, for instance. The music hurtles along, threatening to break down, but never once did it do so in performance from the group for which it was written. Finally, we heard Paul Usher’s transcription for string quartet of Nancarrow’s Study no.33. Its irrational tempo ratio (2:√2) renders, so far as any of us can imagine, ‘straight’ transcription impossible, let alone its performance by ‘live’ musicians. Apparently, a decision was made therefore ‘to work towards a “best fit” rather than complete accuracy’. Perhaps purists would say that defeats the purpose; perhaps it does. I can simply report, as anything but a Nancarrow expert, that the result in live performance was exhilarating. If anything, I found myself still more caught up in the progress of the Ardittis’ performance than I had in the Nancarrow quartets themselves. The variety of texture was certainly as striking as that in the co-ordination – and otherwise! – of the Third Quartet.

Mark Berry