The squeaks, bangs and scraping of cutting-edge new music are not often to be heard at Wigmore Hall, the high altar of chamber music. When living composers try their hand at the string quartet, the results are more likely to turn up at relatively out-of-the-way venues (the Kronos Quartet, typically, has a short residency devoted to contemporary American chamber music coming up at Hackney Empire later this month).
The guardian deity who looks down from the Wigmore Hall cupola must have greeted the opening of Luke Bedford’s new piece with a sharp intake of breath. His Nine Little Boxes, All Carefully Packed – in effect, a short string quartet – was a Wigmore Hall commission with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Fondation Hoffmann. The title is derived from a passage in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, where a passenger on a ship accidentally leaves his luggage behind in carefully packed parcels on the beach. The idea here is that Bedford’s music is also packed in small boxes, the contents of which are left to disintegrate.
Needless to say, none of this could be guessed without reading the programme note in advance. The music starts with seemingly random guttural noises, which eventually lead to the flowering and decay of a variety of short musical ideas – a high melody on the violin, an energetic rhythm, a viola solo. These are the contents of Bedford’s nine little boxes, the last one being an extended high violin solo described as “Radiant”, which rises to a plateau of serene calm. The ending is magical, but the piece needs a stronger, purely musical logic to hold the different elements together.
The subtlety of the first violin’s playing as it floated radiantly to the end of Bedford’s piece also distinguished the other works on the programme. The Heath Quartet opened with a graceful performance of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, Op.74, which had just enough muscle where required. Then, after the Bedford, came the elegiac beauty of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet in A Minor, D804, where the first violin melodies again sang with such understated eloquence that the fuller colours of the lower instruments almost (but never quite) started to dominate – overall, an enterprising evening.