The new modern generation: the JACK Quartet for Wigmore Hall Live

When the JACK Quartet made their Wigmore Hall début in July last year it felt like both a first date and a moment of arrival. The Hall – more often a venue for classical recitalists than avant-garde explorers with uncompromisingly capitalised names – was buzzing with anticipation, and an entirely different audience from its usual crowd. It was also sold out. If there was any slight disappointment that the JACKs had (quite understandably) opted for a relatively safe programme of Cage, Ligeti, Pintscher and Xenakis (rather than, say, Ablinger, Cassidy, Radulescu and Zorn), it was soon tempered by a blistering recital that shone bright new light on previously familiar works, danced in the crystal clear Wigmore acoustics and pinned its audience to the back of their seats.

Thankfully, the whole thing was recorded and has now been released on the Wigmore Hall’s Live label. Regardless of my hyperventilating first paragraph, this is a CD that I can strongly recommend to all. In particular, I contend, its immediacy and absence of undue reverence make it a great entry-level disc for newcomers to the modernist chamber repertoire.

Three of these works are three or more decades old now:  this is still powerful music, but it has shed its tendency to frighten. In his excellent liner notes (extracted here), John Fallas notes that:

“The Quartet comes to this music as a quartet might more ordinarily come to works from an earlier century. Modernism now has its own classics, and the energy so abundantly on display here is the energy of a young quartet discovering these works anew and making them its own.”

As Fallas notes, the Arditti and LaSalle quartets are the JACKs’ two great forebears (they are also, respectively, the dedicatees of the pieces by Xenakis and Ligeti). So how do they compare? What does a new generation, 21st-century quartet bring?

Well, first, commanding, high contrast, fabulously controlled (yet thrillingly liberated) performances. They are less intellectual, perhaps, or less febrile than the Ardittis (who are the closest comparison) but this is not at the expense of care or precision. And, having grown up with modernism in its mature phases, they are more confident in the language than the pioneering LaSalles. With the JACKs’ performances of Ligeti’s Second Quartet, Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts and Xenakis’s Tetras, the idea of a robotically definitive version is thrown gratefully out of the window. At the best moments it feels like these pieces are breathing freely for the very first time.

Let’s start with Tetras. Compared to the Arditti Quartet’s recording on Gramavision, the dynamics are less terraced (though overall envelope is just as wide), and there is a greater sense of linear continuity and flow; of events cascading into and shaping one another. A more marked difference is that the JACKs’ Wigmore recording is more than a minute longer than the Ardittis’, but the same amount slower than their recording for Mode’s Xenakis Edition. I like the extra time: there’s room to appreciate fine details such as the phasing harmonic beats in the viola’s first salvo (which really sing in the Wigmore version). More pointillistic passages, such as the section of scrapes and crunches at around 2 minutes are highly coloured drifts in the Ardittis’ hands. With more space, and deeper bite, the JACKs tease them out into absurdist drama, and the Wigmore Hall’s generous acoustic really allows every detail to speak.

However, the Arditti Quartet has changed line-up many times in the 30 years that they have been playing Tetras, so a definitive “Arditti version” doesn’t exist. Here, as a point of comparison, is a live video of the current incarnation, with Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissian, Ralf Ehlers and Lukas Fels:

In contrast, String Quartet in Four Parts almost zips by. The recording by the LaSalle Quartet on DG, for example, sounds almost funereal in comparison, a good 25% slower overall. The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music, but it risks obscuring the cubistic, fragmentary structure of the work. Certainly the LaSalles’ version is more overtly weird.  But in the end I think the JACKs pull off a careful balance of segmentation and conjoining tendencies. (Incidentally, they’re considerably stricter about Cage’s instruction to avoid all vibrato.) If you want a more ‘cubist’ version, in which the additive structure is more apparent, then the Ardittis on Mode is what you need.

Ligeti’s Second String Quartet was written for the LaSalle, and along with other works commissioned by the Quartet (including quartets from Lutosławski and Penderecki) it helped define the possibilities of postwar, post-Bartók string quartet composition. Some would have it that it is one of the finest quartets of the 20th century, and one of the high points of Ligeti’s output. I have to confess that I’m not one of those people. While I frequently fall for large-scale Ligeti (of the Lontano sort), chamber Ligeti sounds to me fiddly and fussy. (Oddly, I have the opposite reaction to Xenakis.)

My reaction at the July 2011 concert was one of the strongest of the recital, and I remember it distinctly: that was an outstanding performance, but in its fidelity it has only strengthened my feelings against the piece. So the fault remains mine, possibly shared with Ligeti, but certainly not the JACKs’.

The LaSalles’ recording (again on DG) is hard to beat, and is one of the landmark recordings of its time. But again, the difference is that between an ensemble crackling with the energy required to continually reinvent itself, and one for whom this language is its mother tongue. What you lose in precarious tension you gain in confidence and swagger. (Although there are still moments when the JACKs take their technique right to the edge.)

The only non/not yet-classic on the disc is Matthias Pintscher’s Study IV for Treatise on the Veil. This takes its inspiration from Cy Twombly’s monumental 1970 painting Treatise on the Veil.

Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil (Second Version). House paint and crayon on canvas.

Pintscher’s piece is the fourth in a series for related small string groups; he talks more about Study for Treatise on the Veil I (for violin and cello) and its origins in Twombly’s painting in this interview with Mark Mandarano. In particular he refers to his attempts to create a musical analogue for the kinds of visual perspectives that artists like Twombly produce in their paintings.

(An interesting aside: Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil is one of a series of ‘Veil’ pieces, one of which, The Veil of Orpheus, he explicitly linked to a musical work itself, Pierre Henry’s Le voile d’Orphée of 1953.)

The JACK Quartet have a close working relationship with Pintscher, and in many ways he’s a perfect introduction for a recital like this to their work with living composers. But for me he’s just not as interesting as some. Study has a lot going on, technically, in a post-Lachenmann kind of way, but overall it feels too episodic, the sounds too purposeless. Still, bits of it are very pretty, and it may be that with many more listenings its overall shape will start to reveal itself.

All in all, then, a highly recommended disc, for lovers of contemporary music, newcomers, and fans of string quartet history. You can buy a copy here.

This is Wigmore Hall Live’s first exclusively contemporary release since, appropriately, the Arditti’s recital disc recorded in 2005, which itself featured a (more poised, less energetic) performance of the Ligeti Second. In recent years the hall has increased its commitment to live new music (the hall’s Twitter account informs me there have been 400 premieres since 2005), and the Fondation Hoffmann Commissioning Scheme means that new works are being created every season. Let’s hope that means more all-contemporary recitals like this one making it to disc.

[Final paragraph adjusted 31 May to incorporate mention of current new music at WH.]

Update: the whole album is now available on Spotify:

6 thoughts on “The new modern generation: the JACK Quartet for Wigmore Hall Live

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