One notable absentee from the Southbank Centre’s celebration of the post-war avant garde earlier this month was Jean Barraqué, a composer whose tiny catalogue of works, whilst not as well known as those of his contemporaries, is a vivid reminder of just how diverse the period was stylistically. Here the Diotima Quartet gave the first UK performance of a recently rediscovered string quartet dating from the composer’s studies with Messiaen. Music as brittle and violent as anything in Boulez was juxtaposed with gestures of a surprising simplicity and directness, such as the sudden resonant unison which brought the scurrying second movement to its conclusion and the rousing fugal procedures which open the finale. The third movement, a theme and variations, was perhaps the most striking; a number of extended soliloquies, all played here with deep sympathy and feeling, creating a sombre and restrained atmosphere. If there were occasional moments which were not completely convincing, the moments of inspiration and the impassioned account the work was treated to more than made up for them.

Diotima Quartet © Molina Visuals
Diotima Quartet
© Molina Visuals

The second première in the programme, Toshio Hosokawa’s Distant Voices, hung together rather better, perhaps rather too well though for, despite some beautifully-heard harmonies and textures it didn’t really go anywhere. Often, as in much of Hosokawa’s work, the sound of the shô proved to be an inspiration, imitated in the harmonically dense but airy chords which grew out of silence at the opening. As the work progressed these chords were contrasted with raw gutsy passages which, again, were exciting enough in themselves but, all in all, this work added up to less the sum of its parts.

A truly astonishing account of Ferneyhough’s String Quartet no. 2 had opened the concert. From the coruscating violin solo which sets the work in motion, the freshness and ease with which the group approached its formidable challenges was breathtaking. Indeed, the clarity of this performance made it apparent that, despite the work’s wide palette of sounds and the many innovative textures on show, gesturally this music is direct and readily digestible.

Bartók’s String Quartet no. 3 is his shortest but in some ways his most complex. His visionary writing in many ways opened up the way for the exciting textural innovations, extended techniques and glissandi that featured in the rest of this programme but whilst the Diotimas excelled in these aspects of the work, its muscular dance rhythms and classical transparency were not always made evident. An impressive sense of pacing and shape made the winding opening lines of the quartet’s opening gripping, but later details like the three monolithic ff chords and the pizzicato accompaniment in the coda’s folk-like melody were lost in a general texture. The second part was set up well by an electrifying second violin pedal from Guillaume Latour, though the first violin semiquaver flourishes needed more body and rhythmic tightness to really work and to distinguish them from the quasi glissando figures in the viola and cello. The trajectory of the quartet’s third section was brilliantly captured though ultimately this performance lacked a wild danger – particularly in the grotesque glissandi and dizzying coda.

****1