Arditti Quartet, Milton Court Concert Hall, London – review

If Irvine Arditti has kept his correspondence, he must have built up a uniquely fascinating musical archive. As founder and leader of the Arditti Quartet, he has given the premieres of several hundred new works by a roll call of the major contemporary composers of his generation, from Adès to Stockhausen, Cage to Carter, Kurtág to Nancarrow.

How to celebrate the quartet’s 40th anniversary? A simple concert would hardly be enough to sum up such a rich history, so the celebrations took the form of an entire day at Milton Court Concert Hall, comprising three sessions and works by 15 of the composers to whom the Arditti Quartet have felt especially close.

The Quartet have always specialised in the sort of bristlingly extreme new music that other groups cannot (or do not want to) play. Irvine Arditti told a delightful story about how he had gone to Xenakis as a teenager and wrestled with a particularly difficult piece. “You will find a way,” the composer told him, and so he always has – though, Arditti added, even when he had become a more experienced player, that piece by Xenakis was “still impossible”.

It would not be an Arditti celebration without a premiere. Three were on the programme: Birtwistle’s Hoquetus Irvineus was a four-minute tribute to Irvine of characteristic rhythmic complexity; James Clarke’s Quartet No. 3 compressed extreme contrasts into a five-minute nugget; and more expansive than either was Bitácora capilar by Hilda Paredes, Arditti’s wife, which makes a beguiling journey of gently experimental sounds – shimmering harmonics, quarter-tones, pizzicatos, like shifting cloud patterns in the sky.

Among the other composers who had to be represented were Pascal Dusapin, whose String Quartet No. 5 (2004-5) reaches out to hard-to-grasp lyricism, and Toshio Hosokawa in the highly sensitive sound-world of his Silent Flowers (1998). Nothing, though, can disguise a modern classic. Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, a clear precursor to many of these pieces, was written in 1968, before the Arditti Quartet was formed, but the players have made it their own. And Xenakis’s Tetras of 1983 may also be nearly “impossible”, but how powerfully its dynamism drives the Arditti players ever onward.

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