5 March 2009
Arditti Quartet at Melbourne Recital Centre
Melbourne // VIC // 18. & 21.02.09
© Philippe Gontier
As specialists in the performance of contemporary music, the Arditti Quartet has been directly responsible for the creation and promotion of much of the best chamber music written over the last thirty years. As artists in residence for the inaugural season of the new Melbourne Recital Centre, they presented three concerts and two workshops.
The first of these workshops was intended to be a masterclass for local ensembles. For reasons that were unclear, this was changed at late notice, and, instead, three local composers were given the benefit of the Quartet’s vast experience and skill. The group makes a point of working frequently with emerging composers, and is regularly in residence in this capacity at the world’s major festivals.
All three chosen works were linked by their atonal sound worlds, metrical complexities and use of extended instrumental techniques. The Quartet speaks this language fluently and was able to offer much constructive advice. A common theme was the need to present complex musical ideas to the performer as unambiguously and simply as possible. It became obvious that the Quartet has seen all of this before many times over, and has worked out strategies to protect composers from various notational pitfalls.
First heard were some sketches from Robert Dahm’s Dreaming of Skin. These three brief and epigrammatic movements were intensely concentrated, with delicately blended gestures framed by pregnant silences. The metrical complexities of this work showed why the calculator has become an essential tool for contemporary composers and performers. In this case, long bars became easier to synchronise when subdivided into smaller units, and the same musical result could be achieved more comfortably by the performers with a simplification of the notation.
In all of the works, the Quartet addressed many 'nuts and bolts' concerns, including mistakes in rhythmic notation and verbal instructions. Here the goodwill and patience of the leader in particular were tested, as inconsistencies that were initially 'not good' became 'completely stupid' by the end of the work in question. In all fairness to the composers, there had been little notice given of the workshop, and the works may not have been in their most refined state.
Of the other works presented, Brian Koo’s String Quartet No. 4 featured flowing textures and chromatic bands of sound - an evocative work, in which much use was also made of slow upward glissandi and microtonal slides. Yellow by Scott McIntyre highlighted the problems of synchronisation when instruments played in different time streams but were expected to combine at key moments. After much discussion and many suggestions, the sight-reading Quartet then proceeded to do exactly what the composer had requested, revealing the awesome chemistry and empathy that can evolve in an experienced ensemble.
The second of the Quartet’s concerts was of particular interest to local audiences as it featured Brett Dean’s musical response to the 2001 Tampa crisis, Eclipse (2003). The work comprises three contrasting sections that are linked into an arch form. The first part begins with subtle microtonal distortions of a single pitch, characteristic of the work of Giacinto Scelsi, whose String Quartet No. 5 (1984) was the next piece on the program. There were some in the audience who thought that the program order had been changed, but this impression was dispelled by the mournful cello theme that arises from this texture. The central section is a muscular and polyrhythmic dance, with raw-sounding double stops, and the work concludes with a re-examination of the earlier material. The composer would advise against reading too much programmatically into this passionate work, but the overwhelming impression is of a multitude of voices – screaming, crying, in anger, in sorrow, in protest and in grief.
Throughout, the Quartet showed why they are so respected as interpreters of contemporary music, as they effortlessly negotiated the multiple difficulties inherent in this demanding repertoire. The group sound is well blended, and they are particularly adept at making the music clear and easy to follow. This basic approach was perhaps least successful in their interpretation of Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925-26), where a little more subjective indulgence might have accentuated the works overtly romantic aspects.
Of the other works, Scelsi’s piece was an essay in control, as the simple gestures on which the work is built were realised with an innate sense of proportion. This tantalising piece never strays far from the initial statement but manages to build to a climax before ending abruptly, leaving the listener with a sense that the composer has left many possibilities unexplored.
In contrast, Ligeti’s String Quartet no. 2 (1968) is a tour de force that leaves no stone unturned in its profligacy of ideas and never-ending variation. The Quartet played with almost violent precision, maximising the dramatic contrasts and connecting the different sections with logic and clarity. The central pizzicato movement in particular was a minor miracle of dynamic control and rhythmic cohesion, as the movement snapped and popped before dissolving into silence.
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, the Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.
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