Irvine Arditti is turning 60 this year, but the real landmark perhaps comes next year, when his eponymous string quartet turns 40. The astonishing amount of good they have done contemporary music in this time deserves a ton of celebration in 2014. For now, though, it’s the inimitable figure of Irvine Arditti alone who is centre of attention, and this Wigmore Hall programme to mark his birthday was an apt spotlight for his remarkable talents.

Arditti Quartet
Arditti Quartet

Two solo pieces played by Arditti were nestled in among the usual mixture of ensemble pieces by contemporary composers seldom heard in the UK outside Huddersfield. And while the group performed with its characteristic panache, it was Arditti’s two solos that made the biggest impression, capturing as they did the full range possible within the characteristically complex musical style the group champions. Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaccona, first off, wears its complexity very thickly, with all of the manic detail typical of Ferneyhough’s scores crammed in. Arditti describes it as “one of the toughest challenges in the violin repertoire”, and it’s not hard to hear the heaps of detail injected into every single note.

Arditti dispatched it, though, with the same sense of implacable calm with which he played John Cage’s Eight Whiskus, melodically speaking as simple a piece as they come. This folk-like set was originally written for voice, and the violin version repurposes the text, with different speech-sounds translated into different playing techniques. Its great beauty was rendered yet starker by the frenetic, hard-edged modernistic music surrounding it on the programme – and the contrast proved the huge value of Arditti’s notes-first philosophy.

Arditti opened the concert solo with the Ferneyhough, and for the next piece he was joined on stage only by cellist Lucas Fels – violinist Ashot Sarkissjan was nestled away at the back of the hall, and violist Ralf Ehlers was somewhere up on the balcony. Robert H.P. Platz used spatial effects in his strings (Echo VII), a graceful exploration of the four characters that make up a string quartet. “Like four galaxies in polyphonic space”, he writes, the players seem to operate separately but with a sense of connection emerging between them, creating a broad, meditative space, and bringing back happy memories of Gruppen at the Royal Festival Hall two weeks previously.

Bizarrely melodramatic title notwithstanding, Cuerdas del destino (“Strings of Destiny”) by Arditti’s wife Hilda Paredes was another entertaining number for the quartet, all seated on stage this time. It’s literally a very bouncy piece, with pizzicato and col legno effects ricocheting rapidly off the strings, at it made an enjoyably vibrant conclusion to the first half.

The energy of the concert dragged a little in the second half, with the first two parts of Francisco Guerrero’s string trio Zayin not convincing me that the UK desperately needs to hear the UK première of the whole seven-part epic any time soon. But then came the Cage, and the concert closed with the obligatory world première: a piece by another 60-year-old in tribute to his violin-playing contemporary. Akira Nishimura’s String Quartet no. 5, “Shesha” is an attractive, quasi-narrative work drawing on Hindu mythology. Shesha is a snake whose awakening means the awakening of the whole world, and in this quartet’s three sections we follow the snake as it makes Amrita, the nectar of immortality. Nishimura’s aim, as he writes, was simple: “I just wanted to present Irvine Arditti with my work which is like a celebratory small ring of sound in the shape of a snake.” In this, he has undoubtedly succeeded.

The work Arditti and his quartet have done in making new music happen is enormous: the number of new pieces they have performed is so high that I can’t even find an official figure. Not every one, perhaps, will make it to the history books – but the group has created a brilliant platform on which new music can shine. Long may we continue to celebrate the Arditti Quartet – and long may we join them in celebrating new music.

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