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World Premiere Highlight of Quartet Concert

Arditti Quartet Presents Well-Rehearsed But Unmoving Program of 20th-Century Works

By Jacqueline O'Connor

Arditti Quartet

Kresge Auditorium

Jan. 24, 8 p.m.

Over the past few decades, some of the world’s renowned quartets have performed at Kresge Auditorium as part of the MIT Guest Artist Series. On Friday, England’s Arditti Quartet stopped by for a program of four contemporary works, which included a world premiere by Laura Elise Schwendinger. The quartet, founded in 1974 by first violinist Irvine Arditti, also performed string quartets by Bela Bartok, Jonathan Harvey, and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Despite the tremendous difficulty of the program, this well-seasoned group completed the concert with near-perfect technique. Hardly a note was out of place, even in the midst of extreme dissonance, and every effect the instruments could produce was presented clearly.

Performances flawless but musically hollow

Though the technical prowess exhibited was impressive, a certain emotional intensity required in contemporary music was lacking. The cellist hardly stirred; eye contact was rarely made between players; and the first and second violinists even went so far as to conduct the music with their instruments instead of depending on the traditional signs of body language for guidance.

The first selection, Bela Bartok’s Quartet No. 4, showed not only the composer’s tonal genius but also his wide demand to produce a broad range of effects and sounds from each instrument and the group as a whole. The musicians showed their talent in the demanding first movement during which each musician must hold his own part in a sort of dissonant conversation while practicing near impossible technique. Perfect balance and tone were achieved at the beginning of the third movement when the mood was being set for the three gorgeously written solos to follow. Unfortunately, the solos did not speak to the music and showed neither passion nor meaning. The group recovered some emotion in the following movements, playing melodies reminiscent of Eastern European folk songs.

Next on the program was the highlight of the evening, the world premiere of Laura Elise Schwendinger’s String Quartet. Schwendinger, an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Illinois in Chicago, wrote the quartet on commission from The Harvard Musical Association of Boston, which co-sponsored this concert with the MIT Guest Artist Series. The piece itself was impressive and appeared very aware of its audience.

The first movement, influenced by Bartok, followed many of his patterns of composition. Though the opening was tonally stressful, the piece was full of movement as it reached false climaxes, only to continue climbing. Intermingling graceful melodies with the complex rhythms and discord, Schwendinger provides a sort of relief from the intenseness of the rest of the movement. The second movement, Molto espressivo, dancelike, opened with a suspenseful cushion of tremolos on which the cello and viola melodies rested. The dance part of the movement was felt in the short melodies though many pauses interrupted the flow.

The last movement of Schwendinger’s quartet mimicked its inspiration, the music of Maurice Ravel, with its intricate orchestration for only four instruments. A perfect balance was struck between the first violin’s melodies and the countermelodies that supported it. The Arditti Quartet’s performance was well-received, especially by the composer herself, present in the audience.

Harvey work a ‘cascade of bounces’

The second half of the concert opened with the one-movement String Quartet No. 3, by Jonathan Harvey. This wonderful piece started with each musician nonchalantly throwing their bows on the strings in a wonderful cascade of bounces. Following the striking opening, the piece continually searched for tonal unison and almost achieved it a number of times.

Every time the four instruments came near the same note or tonic chord, at least one instrument would be a half-step off from achieving the unison, an effect that seemed to throw the music barreling off into dissonance and discord once more. In this piece, the Arditti Quartet delivered their best performance of the night. The movement and effects within the work came naturally to the group and a certain amount of meaning was projected from their playing. The movement concluded, just as it had opened, disappearing in a trickle of spicatto.

The last selection was the String Quartet No. 2, by Gyorgy Ligeti. The five-movement work, written in 1968, was well performed by the quartet, which acheived both extreme tonal and dynamical contrasts while retaining coherence and flow. Though each movement differed in tone, overall the piece seemed harsh and came off as unforgiving toward the audience.

While the technical abilities of the Arditti Quartet were superior to many performances seen on Kresge’s stage, the feeling for this emotionally demanding music was not there on Friday night. All together, the performance left me impressed, yet unmoved.