Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral and vocal works, but this year i’m going to focus attention on the string quartet. To begin, one of my favourite contemporary quartets, Thomas Adès‘ Arcadiana, composed in 1994 for the Endellion Quartet, who gave the first performance in November. My first encounter with the work was the following summer, when the Endellions brought it to the Cheltenham Music Festival; it made a very deep impression on me then, and it still does today.
Adès conceived the piece as a series of short evocations, each of the seven movements being “an image associated with ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary”. As such, fantasy and allusion are richly present throughout, Adès deliberately intimating at various composers while refraining from obvious quotation. The opening movement, ‘Venezia notturno’ (all of the odd movements reference aquatic subjects), is the least assertive of them all, undulating arpeggios and a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, and just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—and it’s gone, washed away in the momentarily aggressive coda. ‘Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon’ is a title directly drawn from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and Papageno’s bells seem to be the source here, with the Queen of the Night putting in an appearance right at the end. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ switches to a Schubert lied as inspiration, the downward pattern of the well-known piano part becoming a preoccupation of the entire quartet, first as onomatopoeic pizzicato drips, eventually as a more passionate cascade; it’s the first time in Arcadiana that the quartet becomes really substantial.
The epicentre of the work is ‘Et… (tango mortale)’, a somewhat superficial but brutally parodic tango, one that lumbers, grunts and farts (i kid you not) its way around, less like a dancer than an overweight contortionist. It aspires and enters into a more ethereal mindset, however, and thence to a kind of stuttering funeral march (Adès had Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego in mind). In ‘L’Embarquement’ there are just the barest hints of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse; Adès’ material is more emphatically melodic than Debussy’s, but the way it’s gradually broken up by surface activity is strongly redolent of that piece. The penultimate movement, ‘O Albion’, is justly renowned. Beginning in a clear evocation of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ (a sustained G becoming part of an E-flat chord), the music is characterised by a melody formed from a slow hocket, rising and falling sequentially. This takes place twice, and each time the apex of the melody is in conjunction with a dissonant chord—which Adès once described to me as “chest pains”—that changes the direction of the music. Adès here dispenses with the detailed performance indications that pepper the other movements, simply instructing the quartet to play ‘Devotissimo’; considering “Albion” is an archaic term for England, together with the Elgar connection and the ultimate lack of resolution in the final chord, there’s the heavy implication of a wistful lamenting for a lost and more attractive age. Last comes ‘Lethe’, in which a ceaseless melodic searching (or questioning) gradually returns to the translucence of the start, losing all solidity; it concludes in a kind of blank klangfarbenmelodie created from harmonics passed between the players, perhaps a representation of the oblivion the river Lethe gave to those who drank its waters.
Arcadiana is one of Thomas Adès’ early masterpieces, a quietly dazzling demonstration of free-form invention, lacking the self-consciousness that has hampered some of his more recent work. This performance, broadcast in September 2011, was given by The Danish String Quartet as part of that year’s Norfolk and Norwich Chamber Music Season.