A Typically Stimulating Exploration of Contemporary Repertoire by the Arditti Quartet

 AustriaAustria Wien Modern (3) – Zorn, Lim, Tonia, Parades, Kessler: Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola), Lucas Fels (cello)]. Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 12.11.2015 (MB)

John Zorn – The Remedy of Fortune (2014, Austrian premiere)
Liza Lim – The Weaver’s Knot (2013, Austrian premiere)
Lina Tonia – Ennea (2015, world premiere)
Hilda Paredes – Hacia una bitácora capilar (2014, Austrian premiere)
Thomas Kessler – String Quartet, for string quartet with live electronics (2012, Austrian premiere)

By default rather than design – although I think it is worth doing more often – I heard all five of these pieces without programme notes, since I had left the Wien Modern programme at my apartment. My experience was often unmediated by anything whatsoever, since I had only heard music by one of the composers, Hilda Paredes, previously, and even then, not this particular piece. Too much can sometimes be made of the virtues of listening with an ‘innocent ear’. An important part of artistic creation and reception is what we bring culturally to the table; we do not need always to reinvent the wheel, or sonata form, or whatever it might be. However, there are real virtues too; I hope that my reactions would not have been different, had I known more about the works and the composers – the performances, needless to say, all seemed excellent – but how can I know?

First up was John Zorn’s The Remedy of Fortune. I learned afterwards that it was ‘inspired by Guillaume de Machaut and Béla Bartók’s work’. The title, it seems, is after a poem by Machaut; the work, Zorn’s sixth quartet, unfolds in six tableaux, each of them beginning, in a tribute to Bartók’s Sixth Quartet, mesto. That must, the first time around, have been what I heard as an introduction of sorts: so far, so good. Moreover, the work seemed to unfold in sections as outlined, although I naturally had no idea of the reasoning, nor of the emphasis upon different aspects of ‘romantic love’: hope, pain, ecstasy, and so on. A tonal violin fragment was repeated several times, prior to some quite different material, setting up what seemed like an unpredictable pattern for the rest of the work. Sounds from the past came and went. One pizzicato passage sounded almost balletic, a first violin passage following with shades of Prokofiev, although the music against which it was set certainly had no such shades! At what seemed like the heart was another pizzicato section, certainly seeming to evoke, to imitate, perhaps even to incorporate early music. Involved counterpoint would be followed by simple, diatonic harmony, with much in between too. I am not sure what it all added up to, but, by the same token, could certainly not, on the basis of a single hearing, say that it did not add up.

Liza Lim followed, with The Weaver’s Knot, written for the fortieth anniversary of the Arditti Quartet. Her piece was – a welcome thing, this! – shorter than its predecessor. ‘Traditional’ extended techniques, harmonics included (if one can call them extended techniques!), sounded, especially at its opening, surprisingly fresh, even new. There seemed to me far more of a continuous line than in the Zorn piece, however quickly that line might change its quality. Pitches emerged as centres, if only then to be replaced by others. A process of unfolding, not necessarily as one might expect it, seemed to be at the heart; perhaps that was the concept of the ‘knot’ and its untying?

Lina Tonia’s Ennea, still shorter, or so it seemed (I am never any good at knowing how long music lasts in seconds, minutes, hours…), emerged as an accomplished work indeed, again from someone with whose music I was entirely unfamiliar. The ‘spiral form’ – as I learned later – had in common with Lim’s work a strong sense of what one might reasonably think of as development and of unexpected, yet far from arbitrary, twists to that development. An arresting opening with high (post-Ligeti?) scurrying immediately instilled the sense of not knowing where the music might lead. Lucas Fels’s cello continued to offer something different: both from the violins and viola, and from its earlier, reinventing self. A long, quiet viola note (Ralf Ehlers), perhaps with a reminiscence, at least for me, of Nono, led to reinvigorated, even violent scurrying. I should certainly like to hear more from Tonia.

Finally, in the first half: Paredes’s Hacia una bitácora capilar, a shorter version, as again I would learn afterwards, of another 40th anniversary Arditti work, Bitácora capilar. The players’ performance certainly seemed to speak of knowing the material inside out: performed as a ‘classic’, as other quartets might perform Brahms. There seemed, to my ears, to be a strong sense of harmony and harmonic progression, although the harmonies themselves were rarely over-familiar, or expected. Likewise, the sense of musical narrative, not necessarily to be translated into words or images, though not necessarily not so to be translated, sounded strongly throughout, both in work and performance. Textures were varied, yet always sounded as if they took their leave from a greater whole.

After the interval, came the one work with electronics: Thomas Kessler’s 2013 String Quartet. I have still not consulted the programme note, but shall do so after writing. Ghostly – in the sense of the past and of something akin to the spirit world – opening electronics sounded initially an intriguing idea that a more tonal realm might be that of modern Klangregie, whilst the venerable string quartet sounded more of the present. And yet, that relationship did not remain constant, apparently subjected to all manner of twists and turns: the well-worn metaphor of a journey sprang again to mind. Intervals sounded with stronger tonal implications than I might have suspected they intrinsically had; I was not sure how or why that was accomplished, yet again, it intrigued. Electronic manipulation of ‘old’ harmonies and incessant instrumental ‘interference’ put me in mind of an old radio broadcast. And then, quickly, there was something else entirely; or was it? At any rate, there seemed to be no resting upon laurels, upon easy assumptions. Materials seemed re-examined, re-imagined, almost like Lachenmann, but in a less overtly didactic fashion; indeed, I sensed no didacticism at all. Perhaps there was an irony in that the traditional pattern of what sounded as the ‘weightiest’ – that is not necessarily to say the ‘best’, though equally, it is not to say that it was not, either – work was placed as the culmination of the concert. Much, then, to think about, in another splendidly impressive Arditti Quartet performance. And yes, I should be eager to hear more of Kessler’s music.

Mark Berry

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