Arditti Quartet still living on the modernist edge at Library of Congress
The Arditti Quartet is known for playing music that can be difficult to love, although they always put it in the best possible light. On Friday evening the group, still led by founding first violinist Irvine Arditti, made its first stop at the Library of Congress since 2012. Joining forces with guitarist Eliot Fisk, they performed a daunting selection of contemporary music written for them, along with one unexpected world premiere.
Fisk was the dedicatee of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XI, written for solo guitar in 1988. The piece opens in a promising way, quite soft and with intriguing harmonies to explore. In the more explosive central section, filled with more violent strumming and percussive strikes, it was harder to tease apart the harmonic structures. Certain pedal notes pop out of the texture throughout the piece, played with delicacy by Fisk, who communicated the restlessness of the work, which becomes repetitive in its near-constant agitation.
The principal virtue of Philippe Manoury’s String Quartet No. 4, premiered by the Arditti Quartet just last year, was the brevity of its eleven movements. In each of them, reflecting the work’s subtitle (“Fragmenti”), the French composer seized on a musical idea but did not hold onto it too long. The musicians refined some of these brief wisps of sound into moments of exceptional beauty, like the glassy chords in a spectralist cloud of the second movement (“Calmo”) or the muted soft murmurs of the sixth (“Passaggio”).
During the forceful pizzicati of the fifth movement (“Serenata”) Arditti broke a string, a repeat of an incident during his no-holds-barred 2012 performance of John Cage’s Freeman Etudes. The mishap only compounded the irritation Arditti had expressed when he discovered the seat of his chair coming loose at the start of the piece. He bounced back, however, contributing buzzing and flutey sounds to the Bartók-like “night music” of the eighth movement (“Episodio”) and the surpriisngly lovely soaring melody in the last (“Lento”).
The presenter had already announced some time ago that a planned world premiere of a new work by Wolfgang Rihm was canceled, “due to circumstances beyond our control.” In its place was another world premiere by Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, Son dementes cuerdas for guitar and string quartet, which just happened to be dedicated to Rihm and available for the Arditti Quartet and Fisk to play. (The fact that Paredes is Arditti’s wife may have had something to do with it.)
Much of the work is a chaotic tumult, seemingly kept together by violist Ralf Ehlers methodically beating time with the neck of his instrument. The entrance of the guitar made a temporary shift, as the strings imitated its sounds of strumming and so on, with the quartet often making Fisk impossible to hear. Some interesting sounds appeared in the cacophony from time to time, for example, the unusual sounds produced by placing the frog end of the bows on the strings. The work’s title translates to “They are insane strings,” which made sense.
The auditorium emptied out dramatically after intermission, when the faithful returned for Helmut Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 3. Premiered by the Arditti Quartet in 2001, and heard here in a revised version from the following year, the work’s subtitle (“Grido,” or shout) brings together the initials of the Arditti Quartet’s members at the time, with only the “I” (Irvine Arditti) still in the group. The composer has said it was written in response to Arditti’s request “to write a louder piece than my two previous quartets.”
Even so, much of the piece explores the idea of soundlessness, in sonorities at the edge of silence and in toneless growls, shrieks, scratches, and whispers. At an extensive length it can be hard to take. One patron, annoyed at herself for staying after intermission, likened it to listening to air raid sirens for half an hour. Lachenmann’s ability to manipulate a vast variety of sounds keeps boredom at bay, but not all listeners may be willing to tolerate that long an exploration of the sounds of tormented cries.
The Library of Congress presents the Orion String Quartet, violist Brett Dean, soprano Tony Arnold, and pianist Juho Pohjonen, in a concert including a new work by Dean 8 p.m. April 8. loc.gov