More Remarkable Xenakis Performances from the JACK Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Xenakis Day II: JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto, Austin Willman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello) with Pavel Kolesnikov (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.2.2017. (CC)

Tetora (1990) for string quartet
Mikka ‘S’ (1976) for solo violin
Ikhoor (1978) for string trio
Akéa (1986) for piano and string quartet
Tetras (1983) for string quartet

It fell to Tom Service to head the pre-concert event, which was broadly an interview with the members of the JACK Quartet with Service providing background and pointers for listening along with some recorded excerpts. The real gems came from the quartet’s experiences of participating in the creation of a Xenakis performance tradition (including the vibrato-less delivery) and of their surmounting of the difficulties in both performance and in realising notation: for example, in the piece Synaphaï (1969, for piano and orchestra), the piano part extends to ten staves (one for each finger). Listening strategies, too, were mooted: the idea of natural formations, of clouds or water droplets perhaps, containing multiple random, Brownian motions that seem (heard, in the context of the musical analogy) to form coherent shapes.

The piece Tetora has a pitch vocabulary produced by the process of sieving: the extraction of notes from a scale to leave a resultant scale that has a particular intervallic “tang”. The scale here is heard very obviously in exposition at the opening. The piece itself holds much delicacy; there is an interior side to Xenakis that is bared for us here. The length of the piece (not too far off a quarter of an hour) allows listeners to immerse themselves completely into Xenakis’ language, which is at once highly rhythmic yet somehow timeless.

Earlier in the day, we had heard Mikka for solo violin. In the evening came the companion piece, Mikka ‘S’. Once more, slithery sounds dominate, here in “duet” between strings, the two pieces complementing each other beautifully. Inspired by the blood of the Greek Gods, Ikhoor for string trio (Christopher Otto as violin) possesses huge energy. Stravinskian repeated chords (think Rite of Spring) lead to plateaux of asynchronicity as the three “voices” fight for independence from the group mind. Again, a brief folkish theme seems to surface but is subsumed into a procession of former moments before the piece dissolves. It is a remarkable work, here in a magnificent performance the dynamic control of which was a joy to experience.

Post-interval, the JACK Quartet was joined by the young and splendid pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, who brought the utmost musicality to the rather dark score, Akéa. Kolesnikov’s Hyperion recording of Chopin Mazurkas impressed my Musicweb colleague Stephen Greenbank last year (see review), and on the present evidence it is easy to see why. Still very young, Kolesnikov has it all: a superb technique with impeccable taste, whether in the arpeggios of the opening or the chordal march later on. Dialogue with the string body was impeccably judged by all, Kolesnikov’s finger clarity was a marvel and best of all was the work’s haunting, slow final section. In a day of full of splendour, this was a particular triumph.

The concert and the Xenakis Day itself was rounded off with the 1983 Tetras for string quartet. There was some fascinating evidence of the sheer chamber musicality going on throughout here, as the viola gave placatory responses to the first violin’s raspings. In his notes Paul Griffiths refers to this piece as “wild and raw”; the perfect close to the day, then, and all the more remarkable in its energy for the demands placed on its performers since the start of proceedings at 1pm. The range of sounds, the extended frenetic outbursts are energising and disconcerting at the same time. Steeped in the music to the very end, the JACK Quartet delivered the final decelerando on a descending line with perfect poise.

This was a fascinating day. As an extension, one lives in hope for more of the piano music of Xenakis to grace the Wigmore: personally I have fond memories of Claude Helffer playing Mists in what I imagine was the 1980s.

Colin Clarke

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