‘Ancient’ and Modern from the JACK Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Machaut, Zorn, Gesualdo, Shaw, Rodericus, Lachenmann: JACK Quartet [Christopher Otto. & Ari Streisfeld (violins); John Pickford Richards (viola); Kevin McFarland (cello)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 2.6.2016. (CC)

Machaut (arr. Streisfeld) – Three Pieces
Zorn – The Remedy of Silence (UK premiere)
Gesualdo (arr. Streisfeld) – Three Madrigals
Caroline Shaw Ritornello 2.sq.2.j (UK premiere)
Rodericus (arr. Otto) – Angelorum psalat
Lachenmann – String Quartet No. 2, “Reigen seliger Geister”

After Steven Osborne’s recital of Crumb and Feldman at Milton Court earlier in the week in a recital entitled The Music of Silence, it was wonderful to see yet more contemporary music on display. Here recent works rubbed shoulders with arrangements by two members of the JACK Quartet of music by Machaut and Gesualdo.

Second violinist of the JACK Quartet, Ari Streisfeld, arranged three pieces by Machaut as the opener. First, “Rose, liz, printemps, verdure”, a rondeau, presents Machaut, but refracted through a prism. Clear, open arrival points gave us signposts; the second piece, “Dame, de qui toute ma joie vient”, was full of poignant, expressive harmonies before the final “Inviolata genitrix” brought a more overtly modernist sound picture.

John Zorn (b 1953) contributed his 2015 piece The Remedy of Fortune, so titled because of a Machaut connection (La Remède de Fortune) and indeed because it contains what Paul Griffiths in his excellent programme note refers to as “a full encounter with the fourteenth-century master”. The music contains references (echoes) of the earlier music but it is entirely of the recent past, containing a huge amount of timbral variety. If the Machaut/Streisfeld contained hints of the virtuosity of the JACK Quartet, this was a full-blooded affirmation of their talents. They are so clearly at home in this music – they are, after all, closely allied to the Kronos and Arditti Quartets – that one is never in doubt of being in safe hands/ Zorn’s piece is divided into six tableaux that run into each other; highly gestural, there were passages of terrific definition from all four players at high speed. The programme notes make no mention of a Janáček influence, but my ears thought they detected some along the way.

Ari Streisfeld’s arranging talents once more shone in Three Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo. Using tuning in just intonation, the music starts to drift away from the open strings, so that “finding the right moment musically to jump back to where we began is where the interesting musical decisions take place”, to quote Streisfeld. The three chosen madrigals all come from Gesualdo’s Sixth Book of Madrigals (published 1611). Shorn of words, one can better appreciate the harmonic daring of these pieces; Streisfeld’s arrangements are terrific, from the scampering passages answering the slower-moving profound harmonies in “Io parto, e non più dissi” through the gentleness of “Beltà, poi che t’assenti” to the subtle sophistication of the final “Già piansi nel dolore”.

To close the first half of the concert we heard, the 2014 piece Ritornello 2.sq.2.j by Caroline Shaw (b 1982). Part of a sequence of works (hence the rather complex title), this piece was fascinating. The musical language, rooted in two tonal chords, is emotionally ambiguous yet restful. At one point it sounds like it’s going to open out into a Coplandesque thigh-slapper of a dance (it doesn’t). The overall impression is of a curiously disembodied shell of a piece. An interesting, if not gripping, composition.

After the interval, it was first violinist Christopher Otto’s turn to have a crack at arranging: Angelorem psalat by Rodericus (a composer who flourished in the late fourteenth century; the work itself is from the Chantilly Codex). A ballade (in AAB form) and originally written for only two parts, Otto expands that to the four-part texture of a string quartet. First violin and viola play the original music; the addition of the remaining two instruments affords an opportunity to fracture the original. The arrangement is beautifully done; the overall impression left was such that this listener, at least, wished it were far longer.

Many of the (smallish) audience had doubtless come for Helmut Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 2, “Reigen seliger Geister”, of 1989. The subtitle translates as “Dance of the Blessed Spirits”. Cast in one continuous 25-minute span, much of the music tends towards the inaudible. The occasional fragment zooms into focus before being once more subsumed by the ongoing whisperings. Extended techniques are very much part of Lachenmann’s expressive palette, but it was when the music erupted (a rare occurrence) that the gesture really made its mark. Grating sounds suggest a stepped-down Xenakis; less confrontational than the Greek master, but no less thought-provoking. A fabulous performance all round, and a great way to close the concert. There were no encores, which felt exactly right.

Colin Clarke