Two weeks ago Julian Anderson’s first opera, Thebans, was given its premiere at English National Opera. Performances are ongoing into June, but before the buzz has had time to die away Anderson is already back with another new piece, his String Quartet No. 2, “300 Weihnachtslieder”, based on historic German carols and arriving well in time for Christmas.
This season Anderson is composer in residence at Wigmore Hall. That involves both a focus on his own chamber works and scheduling other people’s music that he admires alongside – an exercise that produced a highly esoteric programme when the Arditti Quartet gave the premiere of Anderson’s new quartet on Thursday.
Three demanding pieces from the past half century set the scene. Scelsi’s String Quartet No. 4 (1964) is like trying to see through a dense fog of sound. Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 2, “Reigen seliger Geister”, (1989) is half an hour of barely audible wisps of noise, like standing in a long, draughty corridor and listening to distant gusts of wind. Kurtág’s Officium breve (1988-9) is a typically concentrated series of short morsels, each an intensely-worked modernist vignette.
None was as interesting as Anderson’s new quartet, though it was possible to see how they might have influenced him. Introducing what he described as possibly his most complicated work to date, the composer outlined how he had taken apart 300 old German carols, so that only snatches of melody, harmony or rhythm can be discerned in a fast-moving collage.
The music has a light touch, using non-standard tuning and effects such as “vertical bowing” to create a world of reflections where nothing is quite as it seems. The carols emerge as glimpses of something substantial in a prism of flickering lights; or the echoes of distant bells delicately ringing in the season; or, at the end, a nostalgic epilogue that evaporates into a haze of tremolos, pizzicatos and harmonics. There are seven movements, totalling not much more than a quarter of an hour, so the overall effect is rather fragmentary, but the quartet creates an alluring world of its own.
It is getting on for 20 years since the ever expert Arditti Quartet suggested to Anderson that he should write a work for them. They should feel it was worth the wait.