by Phil Freeman
The Arditti Quartet, founded by violinist Irvine Arditti in 1974, is one of the foremost ensembles devoted to performing 20th century and contemporary works. Unlike the Kronos Quartet or the Danish String Quartet, they do not work with jazz or pop composers, nor do they interpret folk music or music from non-Western cultures, though some of the works they have performed do include electronics. They famously premiered Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s “Helicopter quartet” in Amsterdam in 1995, with each member of the quartet hovering in his own helicopter and the music electronically beamed to an audience on the ground. The group’s current members are Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan on violins, Ralf Ehlers on viola, and Lucas Fels on cello.
Their most recent release is a recording of all four string quartets by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. (Get it from Amazon.) The pieces are offered in reverse chronological order, beginning with No. 4, written in 2012, continuing with No. 3 from 2008, followed by No. 2, from 1981, and concluding with No. 1, written in 1973. The earliest/final piece does not follow the traditional four-movement string quartet structure; rather, it is a collection of 10 short preludes.
String Quartet No. 4 is like a slow journey from a rocky, desolate peak down into a forest. It begins with soft, high-pitched squeals like wind and lonely birds; the movement is entitled “Light and Airy (High in the Sky Singing)”. The second section, “With Motion (Dance of Light)”, is more active, with the extremely high-pitched violins joined by almost Bela Bartôk-esque folkish melodies and plucked strings; the whole effect is very much like program music, intended to create images in the listener’s mind. The third movement, “Dark, Heavy and Earthy (with a Heavy Groove)”, permits the cello, plucked like a bass, to take center stage. The disappearance of the squealing violins makes it feel like you’ve suddenly wandered into a cave; when the other instruments do begin to appear, their quiet, plucked notes sound like echoes of the cello, except for one scraping drone that sounds almost mechanical and is placed in the mix in such a way as to make you look over your shoulder. The final movement, “Gently ‘Rocking’ (with Utmost Sensitivity, Babbling)”, is like emerging from the cave into a sunlit field full of puppies and butterflies.
String Quartet No. 3 runs only 11:24; its first movement is exactly one minute long, and its third is a mere 51 seconds. It’s effectively two four- to five-minute passages of music, played so softly and recorded so meticulously that the players’ breaths are often as loud as the notes, bridged by brief interludes. Other than the minute-long first movement, which has a pastoral Romanticism, it’s an extremely slow, surging-and-receding sort of piece. The music feels like it’s trying to sneak up on you.
String Quartet No. 2 is slightly longer, almost 16 minutes total, and is a dark and haunted piece. The first movement has that ominous-then-stabby feel common to horror movie scores that borrow modern classical techniques, while the second movement picks a single figure and works maniacal variations on it for a while, eventually building up to an eruption. The third movement is a comedown of sorts, a slow and meditative passage that ends with a single plucked note, like a warning of chaos to come. And indeed, the piece’s final movement is shrill and frightening, reversing the course of the first movement by starting out stabby, then receding into threatening atmospherics. There’s one final eruption, then a full 10 seconds of silence, so you can catch your breath.
The final piece, String Quartet No. 1, is a series of 10 very short passages—the longest is 3:21, the shortest just 1:15. They don’t seem at all connected to each other, beyond the instrumentation. Some are swirling high-tension vortices, while others are slow-blossoming passages of Romantic beauty, and others are collage-like works that leap from Elliott Carter-esque knots to deep, bulldozer-esque cello rumbles. And they’re all preludes, as advertised; each one seems like it could be introducing or building up to a larger piece elaborating on its core ideas, but the elaboration never comes. This makes it simultaneously exciting—”Hey! That’s a really cool little melody you’ve got there!”—and frustrating—”Really? That’s it? That’s all we get?” In a way, it’s like a cross between Anton Webern‘s miniatures and John Zorn‘s channel-switching genre-splicing pieces, and theoretically, there’s no reason for Abrahamsen to have stopped at 10; this is the kind of thing that can go on forever. Superficially, it’s both the most creative and the least satisfying of the four pieces.
Listening to all four string quartets in sequence—the disc runs under 70 minutes—reveals Hans Abrahamsen as a highly lyrical composer, whose music has a lot of lushness and beauty; many of these melodies could have been written in the 17th or 18th centuries. But then he juxtaposes those melodies against more dissonant, superficially challenging sounds pioneered in the 20th century. The Arditti Quartet‘s masterful performances of these pieces, and the impeccable, close-but-not-too-close recording, bring all the virtues of his music into sharp relief. This is a beautiful album, worth any string quartet fan’s time.
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