They have commissioned several hundred string quartets and other chamber works, released more than 180 CDs, and have garnered enough awards to fill several shelves. What better way, then, for the Arditti Quartet to turn 40 than with a day-long marathon? Despite performing 15 quartets over three concerts, the quartet barely scratched the surface of their impressive legacy. The final concert of the day brought together composers from across the world, including (rather fittingly) yet another première.

Arditti Quartet © Astrid Karger
Arditti Quartet
© Astrid Karger

it goes without saying that an ensemble of this stature would play at a high level, but the Arditti Quartet was polished beyond belief, displaying utmost control over all of the repertoire: articulation and ensemble were virtually faultless. The passion was clear in their mesmerising performances, which rightly received animated responses from the audience. It is a testament to the success of the group that a programme which would typically be decried as inaccessible should receive such an overwhelmingly positive response.

The first two of Wolfgang Rihm's Fetzen last for only a few minutes each, as the composer pursues possibilities for developing material at an accelerated pace. Despite the breathtaking rate at which the pieces unfold and the range of ground which they cover in such a short period of time, the Arditti Quartet emphaized their logical continuity without sacrificing their expressive range. The enigmtic characters of the fragments were fully present, yet they were full of warmth and humour (especially at the beginning of the second movement, with the first violin rudely interrupting the blistering scales of the other players).

Toshio Hosokawa's Silent Flowers draws its inspiration from the Japanese tradition of ikebana, or flower arrangement. Pregnant silences are perhaps the most crucial part of the composition; indeed, the sounds appeared almost ornamental (the composer has previously stated that “music is calligraphy, using sounds painted on the canvas of silence”). Experiments with extended techniques and rearrangements of harmonies seemed little more than surface detail, leaving me cold. My problem lay with the piece rather than the performance: the Arditti Quartet deployed a kaleidoscopic range of timbres which presented these musings in their best light.

Violist Ralf Ehlers introduced Brian Ferneyhough's String Quartet no. 3 as a "romantic" piece, and it was this dimension which came through in the quartet's interpretation. From the delicacy and grace of the first movement to the unbridled passion of the second, the ensemble found a lyricism and beauty in Ferneyhough's writing which challenged typically received ideas of the composer as impenetrable and 'difficult'. The exploratory first movement was made coherent and the intricate writing of the second provided with a sense of expansiveness. The quartet made use of a rich, warm sound, with Ehler's velvety yet robust tone especially notable.

Harrison Birtwistle's Hoquetus Irvineus was commissioned especially for the occasion, and suited the convivial mood of the concert to a tee. It alludes to Machaut's Hoquetus David by making use of the to-and-fro dialogue of the hocket technique. With rhythmic vivacity, scampering passagework and playful pizzicatos, the piece demanded a much lighter sound from the quartet. Although only short, it was agreeable and entertaining.

With meltingly gorgeous harmonic progressions and wistful melodies, Dusapin's String Quartet no. 5 is a product of the composer's more recent turn towards lyricism. Unfolding in one continuous span from the resonant pizzicati of the opening to the synthesis of ideas at its conclusion, the work had a sense of brooding intensity. The quartet captured its yearning quality, creating a sense of spaciousness; Irvine Arditti's haunting solo over the muted mutterings towards the end was a particularly special moment.

Xenakis's Tetras was probably the most familiar work on the programme. It reconfigures traditional gestures of writing for strings, with the musical past glimpsed in refracted form. The Arditti Quartet gave a visceral and thrilling performance which juxtaposed strength and sensuality. A sense of urgency propelled the piece to its end, with the players taking the virtuosic demands in their stride.

The day-long event was aptly advertised underthe slogan '40 years young'. The Arditti Quartet has accomplished an astonishing amount, and shows no signs of stopping soon. Here's to its future, and that of the string quartet genre as a whole; with such devoted proponents as the Ardittis, it's certainly bright.