The second day of my HCMF experience began once again in St Paul’s Hall, confronted by the understated marvel that is the Arditti Quartet. Despite the palpable excitement that pervaded the previous day’s concerts, the atmosphere in the hall on this occasion was that unique kind of highly-charged tension that only a few performers and ensembles can engender. The quartet had brought with them four works that initially seemed strikingly different from each other, but three of them ultimately proved to be united by a common line of enquiry, making the most of out of, materially speaking, very little.
The one exception began the concert: Nine memos for string quartet by Paul Archbold, a 14-minute work that takes its point of inspiration from a discourse by Italo Calvino on various literary qualities, namely lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Archbold has expanded this into a series of nine “metaphor[s] for the string quartet: light, weight, arabesque, multiplicity, transparency, intensity, fire, stillness and velocity”. These are not explored in discrete movements, but Archbold allows them to exert themselves freely throughout the work. Yet this freedom instantly nullifies the meaningfulness of them as a group; indeed, it would be hard to find a contemporary string quartet that doesn’t include material that encompasses all nine of these qualities and ideas. That’s not to suggest Archbold should have taken a more delineated approach, only that it makes his basic premise a rather obvious and highfalutin conceit. Hardly a unique situation in contemporary music, of course, and it wouldn’t even matter if the work wasn’t so achingly familiar at every turn. Repeated recourse to passages of meandering harmonics, and subsequent arbitrarily aggressive outbursts, the gradual teasing out of an idea from a single source through tentative imitation, progressions from high to low registers (and back again), fiery tremolos—there’s nothing wrong with any of this, in theory, except Archbold makes it all sound frustratingly text book.
Conversely, by drastically restricting the scope of her material, Naomi Pinnock offered very much more with which to engage. Her String Quartet No. 2, subtitled ‘Traces’, was given its UK première at this concert, and the tenor of its opening viola solo quickly establishes that it is a heavily preoccupied, even obsessive work. The viola restates, re-emphasises and reconsiders a single gestural idea like picking at a scab. It also sets up a very narrow harmonic environment, echoed and reinforced by the rest of the players when they join in. As a quartet, pauses start to interrupt their focus, allowing some tentative elaboration (or comment) on the central idea, gliding into some lovely soft asides. But Pinnock doesn’t allow the players to lose sight of that opening gesture which, to switch metaphors, becomes like a splinter in the quartet’s side, to the point where they become laboured, grinding away, stuck in an implacable rut. This unsettling first movement is followed by another which seems to usher in a restart. The obsession now fixates on a muted, anaemic representation of the essence of what went before, like the outworking of a single, captured ‘snapshot’. By now the harmonic palette feels utterly constricted, and there’s a sense of no way out—or even of nothing beyond. Yet out of nowhere: a distant collection of high pizzicato notes—no discernible pitch, the first percussive moment in the piece—brings about an enigmatic and altogether unexpected conclusion. In this context, such a tangential contrast with everything else can only be heard with a faint air of hope.
Breaking up the English contingent was Hans Abrahamsen, and there was a clear sense of expectation for the first UK performance of his String Quartet No. 4, completed in 2012 having been commissioned over twenty years ago. One can only imagine how that time was spent, as the result is 21 of the most wretched minutes i’ve ever spent in a concert hall. In many ways, it presents a more extreme version of Archbold’s Nine memos, only in Abrahamsen’s quartet just four behaviours are explored: high harmonic counterpoint, alternating between solo and tutti passages; the same interspersed with col legno passagework and episodes redolent of viol music; plodding pizzicato counterpoint, again with solo and tutti contrasts; and delicate twirling material that Abrahamsen likens to “the ‘babbling’ of a child”. All four movements cling to their mannerisms as though nailed to the floor, exhausting all interest in moments but continuing relentlessly for minutes on end. It’s bad enough that such dull, lazy music as this should be written in the first place, but then to claim—somewhat triumphantly—to have spent two decades working on it is, frankly, to piss all over your chips.
Justifiable triumph, though, came with the final work in the concert, Rebecca Saunders‘ Fletch. As in related works Still and Ire (reviewed here and here), Fletch is dominated by the sound of the trill, here transmogrified into a vicious torrent of violently surging gestures that whistle, glistening, past the ear. The connection to the title—a fletch being the feather placed on the end of an arrow to facilitate its flight—is more than apparent (plus the fact they’re executed by players wielding bows), the material rushing past so fast that there’s barely time to glimpse it; there’s the sense that we’re hearing the effect of the music rather than the music itself. It’s not always so ferocious and razor sharp, however; there’s a dolorous side to Fletch, coloured by delicate downward slides, and for a time the quartet recedes into an icy semi-stasis, as though shivering in darkness. This seems to have a long-term effect on the more assertive music from earlier; when it returns, there’s a striking foreground presence—sustained pitches (perhaps foreshadowed in some not-quite-unisons towards the start)—highly energetic but at odds with the fleeting nature of the surrounding material. Eventually this becomes worked into the overall texture, and the cello—with heavily detuned C-string, as in Ire—is left alone for a while, whereupon the quartet starts to mull over drawn-out lines, vague and indistinct, tremulous, soft but somehow aggressive, tumultuous even. Finally a pitch predominates, surrounded by oblique harmonies that emerge from the gloom.
A string quartet looks like such a benign, innocuous presence on stage, but the Ardittis became nothing less than elemental in this concert. The effect of their playing is like a slap in the face, with a numbing kind of aftershock. They weren’t always given music worthy of their talents on this occasion, but when they were, it’s as though the world came to a stop. Has chamber music ever sounded so riveting?