The Arditti String Quartet opened the New Music Dublin Festival, an appropriate place to perform on the eve of their 40th anniversary as an ensemble. “New music” could be the Arditti’s middle name; it has adventurously championed contemporary repertoire throughout an illustrious career. The quartet’s virtuoso musicality was as breathtaking as ever. The chosen programme challenged the hall’s audience, clearly comprising lovers of new music, young and not so young, spiced with a number of international academics attending a conference on new composition organized by Trinity College Dublin in conjunction with the festival.

Arditti opened with Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet no. 1 from 2012. Meticulously retuned strings, continuous harmonics and overtones and long nuanced lines of intricate rhythms certainly presented a technical challenge for the ensemble, yet their performance was so convincing and relaxed, we too could relax and enjoy the burst of splendid new sounds Haas conjured up. The piece may not be performed too often which is a pity, but quite understandable due to the virtuosity it requires. Irvine Arditti played a double role, conducting with his scroll to keep the quartet together throughout both completely composed sections and those where Haas left development to the improvisational discretion of the players.

After half an hour of harmonic complexity, our spirits were tested as the second piece programmed started off from exactly the same foot. Also from 2012, Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet no. 4 in no way measured up to what had preceded it. Admittedly a hard act to follow, the comparison was truly painful despite Arditti’s complete dedication. The festival programmer Donnacha Dennehy had the wonderful idea to engage the composers to supply programme notes, yet in the case of Abrahamsen, reading that this piece had taken 20 years to complete only strengthened the impression that it was a tough labor of love. It was difficult to appreciate this challenging quartet, despite perfect performance.

It was disappointing to programme a work from 1983 in a new music festival 2014. The concert ended with a delicious and rousing performance of Iannis Xenakis' Tetras, the most convincing, forceful work heard by far. Can we still call this new music? The structure, narrative and creativity of sounds in this piece, now in its golden years, emerged in the inspired and competent hands of the Arditti Quartet as, ironically, the evening’s breath of fresh air.