New York’s JACK Quartet has been earmarked by Wigmore Hall as an Emerging Talent. On the basis of their performance at the Hall on 23 January, this is entirely deserved. They brought boundless energy to a phenomenally challenging programme, including world and London premières, which cemented their reputation as one of the leading exponents of the contemporary string quartet.

JACK Quartet © Henrik Olund
JACK Quartet
© Henrik Olund

They began with the oldest work in the programme, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s astonishing String Quartet. Written in 1931, it is a short piece, but during its ten minutes it anticipates musical developments twenty years before their time.

From the opening bars, the JACK Quartet shone out with the brilliant tone that would permeate the entire concert, building up the tension from the seemingly disparate lines of the first movement, finding their way towards a unified sound at the end. The second movement was simultaneously extraordinarily modern and yet clearly in the form of a classical scherzo, with the quartet bouncing off each other perfectly.

The third, slow, movement is perhaps the most beautiful. The texture builds from the cello upwards, with long notes shifting independently at small intervals. The result is a state of constant suspension, which the quartet brought to life with searing energy. In the fourth movement Crawford Seeger pits the first violin against the rest of the quartet; as the first violins lines get longer, the trios get shorter, and back again. The quartet’s interplay was fantastic, clearly defining which duelling partner had the upper hand at any given point.

The next work was the world première of Christopher Trapani’s Visions and Revisions, in which Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna are the starting point for a set of variations. Not being a fan of Dylan, this put me at a disadvantage as I could not compare it with the source material. I could, however, see why it had appealed to the quartet, as it made full use of string techniques. In fact, at times it felt a little like a compositional exercise, and I wasn’t sure it was saying anything new, although there were some lovely bluegrass-style moments.

This was followed by the master of New Complexity Brian Ferneyhough’s Exordium. Another short piece, it uses 53 fragments, leaving the listener in a sense of confusion throughout. JACK put real passion into their performance, bringing out all manner of sounds; I heard sirens, planes landing and much more. The fragments were all clearly enunciated, and there was fire throughout which elevated the music beyond its cold complexity.

The first half closed with Julian Anderson’s String Quartet no. 1, subtitled “Light Music”. An early work – Anderson was just 17 when he wrote it – it has only recently been reinstated by the composer into his catalogue, hence this performance being a London première. It is an early example of British spectral music, and uses a scale of steps to grade from order to disorder and back again, in both rhythm and pitch.

It is an extraordinary piece, to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. The quartet brought a beautiful focus to their performance, which at times sounded as it was about to fall off the edge of a precipice before drawing back. During other moments the sound had an almost electrical quality to it as it devolved into chaos and back again.

I had wondered about the placement of the interval; there were four works in the first half and only one in the second. The reason for this placement did become obvious, though. Of the sixteen strings involved in Rădulescu’s String Quartet no. 5, “before the universe was born”, only four are tuned normally – the bottom two of the cello and the upper two of the viola. Rădulescu requires that the other strings to be retuned to pitches within the harmonic series which include those unchanged notes. From this, he uses harmonics throughout to explore a microtonal world.

Again, the performance veered from the natural to the digital and back again. I heard didgeridoo-like noises, birds singing to each other, and electronic trance elements, sometimes simultaneously. The performers used their left hands complete to create the harmonics from the open strings only, so that all notes emanated from the cello’s low C, which often had a very primal feel to it. I found myself shifting from relaxing completely and allowing the sounds to wash over me to being incredibly focussed on each sound I heard.

At the end of the piece silence hung over the audience, as we remained in the moment long after the music had finished. The concert was being recorded, although I am not sure whether this was for broadcast or a CD. Either way, I would seek it out, taking any opportunity to hear this extraordinary quartet once more.

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