The Arditti String Quartet is one of the most prominent string quartets in the world of new music, having commissioned and premiered hundreds of works by the best-known composers. The quartet, which is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, presented an intense, complex programme of music by Carter, Ferneyhough, Lachenmann and Paredes on March 20th at the Jane Mallett Theatre. The concert was co-presented by Music Toronto and New Music Concerts.
The concert began with Elliot Carter’s 20-minute String Quartet No. 5 (1995), his final work for string quartet. Carter’s comments on the piece, that the quartet was essentially an exercise in conveying patterns of human behavior, were helpful in connecting a human experience to the multiple layers of dense rhythms, angular melodies and fragmented phrases. The Arditti Quartet’s intensive musicianship made Carter’s music sound lyrical and effortless, sparkling with both clarity and unpredictability.
The next piece, by Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, Cuerdas del destino (2007-8), was an intriguing counterpoint to the rest of the works in the program, since it simultaneously affirmed and denied the aesthetic of the other composers in the programme. Paredes’ music, though also rhythmically complex and rife with extended string techniques, was more flexibly organic than the rest of the programme, with its graceful glissandos, col legno and toneless bowing.
After an intermission, the quartet performed Brian Ferneyhough’s Dum Transisset I-IV (2006), which is a very rough paraphrase on British Renaissance composer Christopher Tye’s works for viol consort. The Arditti Quartet’s performance aided in bringing out the shadow of Tye from underneath the dense, complex virtuosity of the piece’s surface material. The highlight of the performance was the third movement, Totentanz, when the entire quartet played con sordino and simultaneously evoked a distorted viol consort and the wispy, gaunt dance of Death and its victims.
The final piece on the program was Helmut Lachenmann’s 26-minute-long String Quartet No. 3 “Grido”. The German composer is mostly known for his technique musique concrete instrumentale, which founds an entirely new dialectic of musical dialogue based primarily on noise and extended technique. The burden of time melted away as the Arditti Quartet led us through the intense viscerality of Lachenmann’s musical language, through barks and squeaks from intense bow pressure to quiet ethereal drones from string harmonics.
Some may criticize the Arditti String Quartet for dedicating a whole concert to such a narrow and challenging listening experience, but this is audacious music that demands to be heard, and music that would suffer under the arms of a less-skilled quartet. In some respects, this type of music is more in-tune with the complex age we live in, with its hyperrealism and dense layers of existence, and it often speaks more deeply than the more accessible and commercially oriented contemporary music being composed and performed today.
Tyler Versluis is a Toronto-based composer, pianist, and organist studying at the University of Toronto. His works have been performed across Canada, most recently, at the Northern Connections concert presented by New Music Toronto, and the TBA Toy Piano Composers Concert.