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Alan Cooper Reviews: Ligeti String Quartet

In association with: WOODEND MUSIC SOCIETY

MANDHIRA DE SARAM: First violin
PATRICK DAWKINS: Second violin
RICHARD JONES: Viola
VALERIE WELBANKS: Cello

Sunday, 30 October 2016

It is always a pleasure to go to a performance at Woodend Barn. You are made to feel so welcome and the place has a really agreeable atmosphere about it. Sunday’s concert was the final event for soundfestival in a weekend devoted to modern and contemporary music for String Quartet. All the String Quartet performers have been excellent but I thought the Ligeti Quartet on Sunday was really exceptional tackling a thoroughly testing programme with precision and gusto. The concert was planned around the music of Hungarian composers. Béla Bartók was possibly the best known. His celebrated String Quartet No. 5, one of his finest works in the genre, was at the centre of the programme. Surrounding this work were pieces by two other Hungarian composers, György Kurtág and the man whose name this String Quartet bears, György Ligeti. Iannis Xenakis was not Hungarian but his work Tetras (1983) sat very well alongside the other three pieces.

The concert began with Kurtág’s Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 44. The first of these short but intense and often highly energetic pieces, Invocatio, which the composer calls “un fragment” began with lacerating sweeps of the bows. The Ligeti Quartet were obviously powered up for an exciting performance and that is exactly what we got from them. The special technique known as hocquetage where the notes of a theme are passed one at a time from one instrument to another was accomplished seamlessly and with precision in the first piece. Pauses were a feature of the next two pieces they were very much a part of the musical texture, especially in the second piece. The music proceeded with great delicacy. In the fourth piece, In memoriam Sebök György, there was more hocquetage and little touches of string colour lit up the rhythm of the music. In …rappel des oiseaux… rich harmonies melted into just a softly held note, dying away. The sixth and final piece suggested playfulness in which each instrument had its own input seeming to head off just where it wanted to go but creating a joyful unified effect.

Bartók’s Quartet began with a powerful unison theme then the four instruments took up the business of working out the composer’s formal complexities. Rhythm was paramount but movement from one sound landscape to another was smoothly accomplished. So many string motifs and sound textures unfolded before our ears. In the second movement high trills moved from first violin to the other instruments. A plaintive melody on first violin brought emotional poignancy to the music. In the Scherzo, fragments of folk melody followed one another as if remembered by the composer in a dream. In the Andante, more fragments of melody unfolded using special string effects like spicatto or on the cello, slides. In the finale, the spirit of dance was to the fore and appearance of a comical dance tune just for a moment suggested a memory of some cheerful event. The sheer richness of the rhythms and sound textures projected by the Ligeti Quartet made for a really captivating performance of this amazingly rich piece crammed as it was with so much fast unfolding thematic material.

Most of the pieces in the performance were introduced by the viola player Richard Jones. He emphasised the theatricality of the next piece, Tetras by Iannis Xenakis. The work certainly began with some blatantly raucous sounds produced by using the bows on parts of the instruments where the bow does not usually go – and yet, because the instruments were used like a percussion ensemble, the rhythmic patterns which these edgy sounds followed, gave the impression of something not all that unlike the progression of a more conventional string quartet. Then the playing and the string sounds became almost disappointingly (for those expecting something more astonishing) conventional. There was I thought more than a suggestion of the sounds of a busy city. The playing reached an amazing pitch of excitement, savage or demoniac even – what a performance. In some ways I liked it best.

György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 Métamorphoses nocturnes (1952-54) was another work that was rhythmically alive and full of changing musical landscapes flashing before us. In some ways, like the piece by Xenakis, it reached a level of intensity and rhythmic excitement that threatened the very safety of the instruments let alone the energy levels of the performers. Bow hairs worked loose and at least one string was broken.

Enthusiastic applause from the Woodend Barn audience drew forth an unusual and captivating encore. It was the third movement of a work by a composer from Mali. Apparently Mali once ruled over a large African Empire founded by a warrior prince called Sunjata Keita around 1235. Sunjata’s Time is a work by the Malian composer Fodé Lassana Diabaté. The third movement is called Nana Triban named after Sunjata’s beautiful sister. Each of the movements is centred on one particular instrument, in this case the cello. Valerie Welbanks played the attractive melody accompanied lightly by a bowed counter melody on second violin and guitar type pizzicatos on first violin and viola. This was an unexpected and rather delightful gift to us from the marvellous Ligeti Quartet.

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