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Arditti Quartet's Cage Rattling

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Berg, String Quartet, op. 3 / Lyric Suite, Arditti Quartet

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Bartók, String Quartet No. 4 (inter alia), Arditti Quartet
You can count on the Arditti Quartet to program modern music you are unlikely to hear anywhere else, or at least very rarely. Their marathon program at the Library of Congress last night was no exception. With five dense, often dissonant works on offer, it was no surprise that an unexpectedly full house gradually emptied over the course of the three-hour performance. The evening need not have been so long: two pieces, performed less ideally, could easily have been excised, sparing both performers and audience.

One of the high points was Alban Berg's string quartet, op. 3, where the tendency of the musicians, especially first violinist (and sole remaining founding member) Irvine Arditti, toward sour intonation mattered less. The Arditti modus operandi is to play every piece to the hilt, pushing the edge of tempo choice, dynamic contrast, and forceful tone. It served Berg quite well, as in the evocative slow section of the first movement, where a vocabulary of scratches, peeps, whines, buzzes, whistles, and whirs was deployed to full effect. The second movement opened with howls of anger, succeeded by a sultry con sordini section, full of ardent beauty.

The other reason to praise this concert was the chance to hear the new string quartet by British composer Thomas Adès. Called Four Quarters, it was premiered last year by the Emerson Quartet. (Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker has published some thoughts on the work.) The music of Adès continues to impress me, incorporating and building upon many of the mathematical and atonal ideas of the last century but in ways that are much more interesting to both mind and ear than its models. The first movement, Nightfalls, is built out of repeated motif fragments forming open intervals, triads that coalesce amid dissonances, only to be dissected again to reveal ideas voice by voice, in a sort of Klangfarbenmelodie. Pitches rose and fell, creating a sense of brightness or darkness, until the whole structure vanished al niente, with high flautando notes from the violins. Pizzicato notes high on the strings created a sense of the chaotic splash of water drops in the second movement, Serenade: Morning Dew, with violist Ralf Ehlers conducting the multimetric shifts with the neck of his instrument. In the midst of this "scherzo" a trio of arco sounds is interposed, with the return of the pizzicato coming together as a unison melody before evaporating.

The third movement, Days, is centered on an ostinato figure, again made irregular by the addition of stray beats here and there, that starts in the second violin, passing to the viola, and ultimately taken up by all four instruments in obsessive agitation mid-movement. Luscious, quasi-tonal chords hover around that ostinato, as do ecstatic little decorations toward the end of this compact movement. The fourth movement, The 25th Hour, is set in an extremely complex meter, 25/16, the chaotic, extra-temporal backdrop for a game of glassy harmonics alternating with regular notes in the two violins. Drucker has written that Adès was "imagining a kind of yodeling effect," which is another example of Adès being able to uncover new sounds and textures, always surprising and keeping his ideas compressed so that they are fully formed and yet not overworked.

The concert actually had to begin an hour early to accommodate the opening work, John Cage's Two4 for Violin and Piano or Sho. Commissioned by the McKim Fund at the Library of Congress (the manuscript and finished score were on display in the entry hall), this is a piece in Cage's late style, jettisoning the idea of metrical rhythm for that of mathematical duration. Pianist Stephen Drury, who premiered the work with violinist Paul Zukofsky at the Library in 1991, returned for this performance, in honor of the Cage centenary (he was born on September 5, 1912). In the same way that some in the art world take the anti-art posturing of an artist like Marcel Duchamp far too seriously, Cage is revered among modern musicians. His experiments with aleatory techniques and the boundaries of sound and silence have had a profound influence, it is true, but it is disingenuous not at least to acknowledge that his music, in actual practice, can be annoyingly unbearable.

That was certainly the case with this work, forty minutes of pianissimo drones -- clusters of various kinds in the piano, scratchy microtonal long notes from Irvine Arditti's violin -- that is like listening to paint dry, the soundtrack of almost-silence in a mostly empty Zen garden. It is, quite intentionally, anti-music, exploding conventions of rhythm, pitch, melody, pretty much everything that we enjoy about listening to music. It is the sort of thing that I am glad at least to say that I have experienced, no matter how unpleasant, but that I never wish to hear again. The unplanned chronometer malfunction -- Arditti's stopwatch (the note changes are indicated to occur within certain ranges of the piece's overall duration) went off as a timer alarm, aborting the first attempt at performing the work -- was the sort of unpredictable mishap that Cage likely would have enjoyed. It was also an important reminder not to treat the music of this mischievous trickster too seriously.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Arditti Quartet runs emotional gamut in marathon concert (Washington Post, April 12)
The other two works should have been excised from the program, which would have made for a concert of more or less normal length. Beethoven's Große Fuge, op. 133, is something that the Arditti Quartet is known for playing, but their performance last night was so unpleasant that the point it made -- late Beethoven has something in common with dense modern music -- was hardly worth making. Arditti really squealed on the high bits of the first violin part, and overall intonation was often dolorous. The fast sections almost pulled away to shreds because of the group's tendency toward excessive speed and hammered attacks. The group has a unique approach to Bartók, but their performance of the Hungarian composer's Quartet no. 4 suffered by comparison to that heard just last month from the Takács Quartet (listen to the work as recorded by the Keller Quartet). The fast movements were taken so quickly that many of the motifs never fully registered on the ear, making the piece more a series of textural effects, oddly smoothing out its rough edges by glossing over them. The heart of the piece, the third movement, had the feel more of operatic recitative than folk music in the cello and violin solos. If you thought that after three hours of 20th-century music, an encore would be out of the question, you would be wrong: the evening finally came to an end with one of Conlon Nancarrow's deranged Studies For Player Piano, arranged for string quartet by Paul Usher.

String Quartet Week continues with two concerts by the Quatuor Diotima, on Thursday with an all-contemporary program at La Maison Française (April 12, 7:30 pm) and on Friday with more historical fare at the Library of Congress (April 13, 8 pm).

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