Some kind of advanced technical skill was evident from the Arditti String Quartet at its Sunday night performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The same can be said, with slighter greater hesitation, of the works performed: all latter-day hangovers from last century’s modernism.
The Arditti made its name in the late 1970s for its performances of thorny modern works, and the ICA promoted this concert as a display of “the repertoire for which they are so rightly famous.” But the once cutting-edge quartet is now looking increasingly old fashioned. The players are champions of new music as grandfathers of today would recognize it.
Of course, every important musical style was once the new music for a generation. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and the Beatles—for instance—have proven to have the cultural sticking power to outlive their own zeitgeists. It appears the Arditti is now looking back to codify the modernist repertoire’s place in this large sweep of lasting music.
Part of the project has to be to show that this music wasn’t a dead end or detour, but rather an integrated tradition that connects past to future. So on this concert the quartet programmed four works from between 1988 and 2012, as if to prove that complex atonality has continued to live and evolve even in the stylistically eclectic and supposedly more populist musical climate of the last three decades. Three of the works were written by aged members of the postwar generation – Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, and Helmet Lachenmann, while Joshua Fineberg, born in 1969, represented the younger generation.
Ferneyhough’s Dum Transissets I-IV (2007) is a frenetic piece ostensibly—but unrecognizably—based on viol consort music. The fourth movement proved most compelling as unison tutti passages provided relief from the otherwise fractured landscape. Clearly the four were working hard—first violinist Irvine Arditti mouthed numbers, counting silently, while the cellist Lucas Fels grimaced.
Harvey’s String Quartet No. 2 (1988) displayed a similarly tortured affect, but a recurring altissimo cello line accompanied by tremolo provided some of the program’s few moments of beauty.
Fineberg’s La Quintina (2012) placed the quartet in an amplified setup toward the back of the stage. The mood here was more meditative with longer tones as live electronics threw the sound around overhead speakers. According to the program notes, the electronic manipulation was meant to emulate a four voice Sardinian singing technique that gives the impression of a ghost fifth voice, but it sounded like music for a planetarium show.
After intermission, the Arditti played Lachenmann’s 3rd Streichquartett “Grido” (2001). It turned out to have the strongest profile and clearest internal logic of anything on the program, while maintaining a commitment to complexity and extended instrumental techniques. The players bowed their scrolls, bowed the strings at sharp angles, and employed a spectrum of flautando effects. There were a few genuinely dramatic moments of moving forward or textural taking away. The piece still doesn’t engage the listener’s emotional faculties or promote humanistic insight, but something here is interesting.
As it goes, the Arditti certainly conveys this music with rigid competence and the ensemble’s commitment to working with composers is admirable. Sometimes they also play music a bit closer to the heart than was on display this time—their repertoire includes works by Thomas Adès, Louis Andriessen, Benjamin Britten, Sophia Gubaidulina, and György Ligeti.
But will their core modernist repertoire endure? At one time it was pushed as the music of the future, but now it feels more like a nostalgia for things past. Surely some of it will survive, but it’s likely to be for niche performers and niche audiences.