The volume was that of a string quartet on steroids, but the sound was that of eight extraordinary string players each playing slightly different things. James Clarke’s 2012-S, for two string quartets, gave an explosive, subtle start to the Arditti and JACK Quartets’ joint Wigmore Hall recital this Monday. Combining extremes of volume with minute nuances of pitch and expression, 2012-S was a perfect showcase for these two virtuosic quartets, and a whirlwind listen in its own right as well. Like the soundtrack to some invisible, four-dimensional sci-fi movie, the piece pitted aggressive, spacious chords, held for longer than felt quite natural, against shrill, sudden glissandi that seemed to come from nowhere. The plumpness of sound which the two quartets produced together ensured that this studious, precise composition had a visceral, beautiful edge in performance.

JACK Quartet © Stephen Poff
JACK Quartet
© Stephen Poff

This concert had originally been going to happen last Halloween, but Hurricane Sandy got in the way of the JACK Quartet’s trip to London and on that occasion the Ardittis filled out the programme by themselves. It was a treat, then, to hear the younger JACK Quartet as well this time round, and alongside two octets with the Ardittis (both UK premières) they gave the London première of Alex Mincek’s third quartet, lift – tilt – filter – split. With even more raygun-style glissandi than the James Clarke piece, this was an engaging, cartoonish array of effects which added together to an intriguing whole, provocatively structured as a continual set of repetitions in which different musical elements changed each time. In performance, the JACKs seemed to be taking a leaf out of the senior quartet’s book, combining startling precision with a breezy, almost relaxed demeanour. The Ardittis’ own solo quartet was by Michael Pelzel, but the UK première of ...vers le vent... came across as less distinctive than the programme's other items: a thrilling virtuosic trip, but in a very familiar modernist style.

It was a great contrast to the evening’s final piece, Mauro Lanza’s curiously named string octet Der Kampf zwischen Karneval und Fasten (“The Fight between Carnival and Lent”), which was a great example of how – like in a conceptual art exhibition – a carefully crafted programme note can prod the audience down any number of curious, worthwhile paths. Lanza’s ambitious note took in St Augustine, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Rabelais, Brueghel, and his own studies at IRCAM, and concerned thoughts of “institutionalised disorder” and the idea of two opposing forces, such as the piece’s title references – “the dialectic between law and life, speculation and sound reality”.

Was it possible to discern any of Lanza’s nebula of extramusical references through the live performance? Not explicitly, no – but we were hence invited to explore another dialectic, that between the read and the heard. Punctuated by the recurring, mysterious “ding” of a bicycle bell, the sound was of a curious catalogue of pitches and non-pitches, eventually decaying into soft scrapes and clicks, underpinned by a keen, insistent, catchy pulse. Filled with sounds and words, my mind could have gone anywhere.

This open book of a piece was a striking, memorable end to an intense and impressive concert. The final piece’s themes aside, there was never a hint of opposition between the two quartets, who fitted each other perfectly and brought the same attitude to their solo quartets too: the music came first in this concert, and it was a delight to hear.