Clarke: String Quartet No. 2; Ferneyhough: String Quartet No. 6; Fujikura: Flare; Paredes: Canciones Lunáticas

Jake Arditti (countertenor), Arditti Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 5 February 2011 4 stars

Hilda ParedesThis was a wilfully abrasive concert, as consistently challenging to complacency in its audience as it was hostile to compromise in its programming. You'd expect nothing less from the Ardittis, though, and as such the Wigmore Hall must have known what it was letting itself in for (a concert of wonderful music!).

Amongst a quartet of technically delirious works, it was the first, James Clarke's String Quartet No.2, which was the most emotionally intense. Formally tight even amidst irresistible sonic extravagance, Clarke's quartet married Michel Levinas-style (somewhat-) inharmonic string spectra that balanced, teetered, on a cello drone, to a broad updated expressionism that reached its apogee in the two separate passages of violent but startling tutti scratch tone playing. Most impressive in a vivid performance was the utmost fervency with which the players attacked the emotionally dense score. A distinct technical prowess anchored that fervency.

More rambling, though no less defiant in its own way, was Ferneyhough's String Quartet No. 6. In the notes Ferneyhough speaks of his 'staging a discrepancy of adequation between the emplacement and unfolding of sonic materials and the time available for their individual reception' in this piece. He goes on to underline how, in addition, these brief textures are in fact 'constantly overlapped and embedded…creating a qualitative reformulation of the work's initial conceptual environment'. The music sounded much as these notes read: intractable, excessive, and hilarious. Shivering scales skitter over each other, glassy natural and rubbery artificial harmonics occasionally produce a sort of moving negative momentum, whilst feverish dreams of the string quartet's past and future haunt the stage, humouring, moving, and frustrating us in turn. Without the sustained focus of intensity of the Clarke I have to say attention wavered towards the latter sections of the piece, but it and the Ardittis were great fun for most of its run.

I was left a little cold by Dai Fujikura's Flare, a Wigmore Hall co-commission that seemed to run counter to the description the composer offered for it in the notes. In any case, its use of strummed strings, col legno, and pretty much every extended percussive string technique one can think of in the service of its exciting programme of embers flaring into the sky came off with more integrity than similar deployments in Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver, without ever conveying the sort of emotional or even purely musical depth I keep longing for with this much heralded young composer. Formal transparency was secured by its arch-like shape, but little meaning arose out of that form that one could hold onto.

Such emotional depth could be found in the comparatively spare, even sepulchral textures of Hilda Paredes' Canciones Lunáticas. These were three 'lunatic' songs set around a contemplation of the moon's solitary witness for a dark night, moving through a wild second song of lunacy, before emerging in celebration of the moon dancing 'by herself in the meadow' (this last set to a spectrally buoyant version of the Mexican ternary-binary dance, the huapango). The musical language of the setting was narratively alert, sometimes pictorial, sometimes obtuse, but always sensitive, agitated, and energised. The performance could be described in similar terms. Sung by the composer and Irvine Arditti's countertenor son Jake in a voice of persuasive passion (even if its vibrato width was annoyingly variable, and its tone could have gleamed with a little more consistency), this was a performance of vivid intensity, sibilant and whispered like Pierrot, alert and overwrought, but sprung, like Guerrero or Sotelo’s twenty-first century, experimental, flamenco. This was a finely-judged, dynamically arresting end to a strong and even heartening concert.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Hilda Paredes

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