United Kingdom Xenakis Day I: JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto, Austin Willman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.2.2017. (CC)
Ergma (1994) for string quartet
Embellie (1981) for solo viola
Mikka (1971) for solo violin
Kottos (1977) for solo cello
Hunem-Iduhey (1996) for violin and cello
ST/4-1, 080261 (1956-62) for string quartet
The first thing to say about the Wigmore Hall’s composer “days” are that they are not as immersive as the Barbican variety, certainly on this showing. A lunchtime concert and an evening concert with preparatory lecture left an ungainly four-hour gap on a rainy Saturday afternoon (the lunchtime concert lasted almost exactly an hour). Although the day was dominated by the excellence and stamina of the JACK Quartet, perhaps some solo piano music in the afternoon might have bridged the gap? There was a pianist on hand after all, as Pavel Kolesnikov joined the quartet for Akéa in the evening. All of which in itself points up an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive thought: perhaps there is no such thing as too much Xenakis? Complex his music may often be; but it is such an energising complexity it could even become addictive, one suspects.
The 1994 piece for string quartet, Ergma, was written for the Mondriaan Quartet. The title means “finished work” and refers to the “austere art” (Xenakis’ words) of the painter. This is in fact Xenakis’ last quartet but encapsulates the rawness of his expressive language, as well as his propensity of inserting folkish melodies unexpectedly (here the viola theme about half way through, and when it does come it is difficult not to think of the Berio Folksongs!). References to music from earlier times are there too, in the organum-like parallel motion of the chords towards the end. That the JACK Quartet seemed to enter straight into this forbidding world was impressive in itself; perhaps only some of the cello “gratings” seemed unnecessarily softened. One thing that came out of the evening’s pre-concert talk was that almost all of Xenakis’ string music is to be performed senza vibrato, again a rawer sound but one that perhaps also takes the instruments back in time to pre-Classical times, perhaps even to viol consorts?
The piece for solo viola, Embellie, carries a French title this time (“embellished”). Again, the music seems to refer to folk atmospheres and occasionally to church chant. The presence of microtones is pretty much a given in these scores, and John Pickford Richards was a superb exponent. The sound made by Richards was simply huge; yet this was an impeccably musical performance as well as a highly virtuoso one. This piece started a trail of three solo pieces: next up was Mikka for solo violin which took us back all the way to 1971. The title refers to the publisher Mica Salabert (Mikka-S was performed in the evening concert, as we shall see). Slower, more contemplative, for much of the work the violinist, here Austin Williams, slithers up and down quarter-tone scales. Scamperings at the edge of audibility, brilliantly rendered, seemed to whisper of other worlds. In stark contrast is the out and out virtuosity of Kottos for solo cello, written as a test piece for the 1977 Rostropovich Competition in France. These challenges held few terrors for Jay Campbell (a cellist who is lucky enough to look about ten years old from a distance). The guttural, abrasive side of the instrument is, it is fair to say, honoured; glissandi act as effective, sometimes even humorous, ripostes. The piece holds a toccata section that was brightly rendered by Campbell; the music became, at times, dance-like. Again, there was wit to the end. The piece’s title refers to Greek mythology: Kottos and his two brothers were sons of Uranus and Gaia. Kottos had about a hundred hands, which is pretty much what the cellist needs.
Titles are an endless source of stimulation in Xenakis. Hunem-Uduhey, the piece for violin and cello, is (almost) “Yehudi Menuhin” backwards and the piece was written for Menuhin’s 80th birthday in 1996. The two soloists pursue pretty much independent paths; it is another piece that moves away from stupefying demands to a more sedate space; there is a sense of the music trudging forwards. A very late composition of only three minutes’ duration, it found its perfect place here.
I should, perhaps, add a word of explanation concerning those titles that begin “ST”. The “ST” denotes stochastic methods of composition at play, the number after the slash the number of players and the string of digits thereafter is the date that the program was run for Xenakis. (There weren’t many computers around at the time so there was a huge waiting list to use the one computer, hence the date range of composition.) Density of texture plays a role in the structure of this piece, but as Paul Griffiths says quite rightly in his booklet notes, this is “information overload.” The JACK Quartet’s control at he lowest dynamic registers is simply remarkable. High pizzicato took on a remarkable ringing sound, while “percussion” came from tapping the body of instruments. The score is unbelievable complex, and it is a testament to the JACK Quartet’s attunement to this music that tension never sagged for a second.