First published in The Herald on 28 August, 2013
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Heard in isolation, the performance of Janacek’s First String Quartet (the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’) that opened this concert might have been mystifying. The Arditti Quartet atomised the score into melodic, rhythmic and sonic segments then blurted them in plain-spoken outbursts. There was none of the usual lushness or folksiness that most quartets bring to Janacek, nor did the textures really synthesise or flow. The point was to treat the Kreutzer as fierce experimentalism â€“ the Ardittis’ speciality â€“ which worked and didn’t. Some of Janacek’s ardent melodies were too stripped of beauty to communicate. But as a way of exposing just how radical his music still sounds today, let alone 90 years ago when it was new, this performance was revelatory.
It also provided context for the rest of the programme. Xenakis’s 1978 string trio Ikhoor sounded mercurial, bouncy, folksy and swinging. Xenakis’s trademark buzzing glissandi and abrupt squelchy noises in the 1983 string quartet Tetras even made the Queen’s Hall audience chuckle a bit; only the finest musicians could deliver this fearsomely esoteric music with such a light touch.
After the interval we heard Nancarrow’s two string quartets and transcriptions by Paul Usher of two of his player-piano studies. The First Quartet is fairly conventional, with jazzy, frenetic outer movements and a slow, soulful viola elegy in between â€“ it was deemed unplayable in the 1940s, but the Ardittis revealed it as no more outlandish than Bartok’s quartet writing, or indeed Janacek’s. The study transcriptions and the Third Quartet (which incorporates music originally for player-piano) are oddities, a kind of re-humanised machine music. The wobbly, kinetic energy was transfixing, but the jerky bizarreness of the player-piano was lost.