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CD Ultima Arditti


When Joseph Haydn in December 1781 invited a number of his musically inclined friends to subscribe to a set of works for string quartet, what was later to become the renowned Opus 33, he described the publication with the words of the title above: ''music in a new and special way''. To what extent he was referring to musical aspects or to the somewhat unusual way for composer to market his music, we do not know. With this set of six quartets, however, he wrote music history and paved the way for nothing less than a new musical tradition - a tradition which subsequently has been regarded as the very essence of our European classical music heritage. And thus we have the string quartet - a format which became a form in its own right, a concept, and a cornerstone of our musical culture.

At the beginning of the 1990s the English music historian and critic Paul Griffiths made a survey of the development of the string quartet from Haydn’s time until today, drawing attention in particular to pioneering events of the 1960s and 70s and the rebirth of this most classical of music genres at a time when most saw no future for the string quartet or indeed for chamber music in general.

Just as it appeared that the genre was quietly passing away, a need arose – sparked by an underlying awareness of tradition as an essential aspect of new tendencies in modernism – for a closer examination of this most classical of ensemble formats. At the same time renewed interest was generated in classical form – in the chamber music format combined with the modernistic vocabulary which for many years seemed irreconcilable with anything considered to be part of the bourgeois heritage. This renewed interest coincided with the growth of a new culture among musicians, seeking constructive dialogue with the composer, rather than confrontation. Perhaps this happened as a reaction to 1968, to an artistic revolution which threw aside formal concepts; perhaps it was due to a new generation of musicians who had absorbed the new techniques and forms of expression and wanted to apply them in a less 'revolutionary' manner. Whatever it was, something did happen, and it happened quickly.

The Arditti Quartet may not have been the first - both the LaSalle and the Juillard quartets deserve mention here - but hardly any other group has entered the contemporary music scene and so consistently and wholeheartedly created its own tradition and trademark sound as the Ardittis. After them followed others, and in new formations - larger, smaller, more flexible - but again, none so consistently aware of the consequences of their own work as the Ardittis.

Since 1977, when the group that Irvine Arditti had put together three years earlier, performed the first work written for them, Jonathan Harvey's first string quartet, the Ardittis have premiered over 1000 works, recorded some 130 CDs and given innumerable master classes where promising composers have heard their works receive the Arditti treatment and for a moment become part of one of the most important performance traditions of our time. Others have followed in the wake of the Ardittis, and it is interesting to see today that there are many string quartets for whom contemporary music forms a substantial part of the repertoire. Not one of these, however, is as faithful to a new work, its creation and its performance as the Ardittis, whose intention is always to bring out the best in any piece of music.

Such an attitude on the part of musicians is not only laudable, it is something historically new in the practise of music in the 20th century. There are many accounts of the kind of treatment composers in the 1960s were subjected to, concerning works which, in a historical perspective may have been controversial, but by which today's standards appear relatively innocuous. Perhaps a wider view of the 'post modern' breakthrough might reveal it as something more than simply a departure from the avant-garde towards a more eclectic style. Perhaps what happened in the 1950s and 60s was just as much a departure from narrative art forms, where the lack of integral logic in art was so exposed? And did that mean that the coupling of leading avant-garde composers with the string quartet format heralded a growing awareness that some ensemble forms might have significance beyond their own time? Were the avant-garde afraid of becoming too bound by time in their search for absolute freedom from the tradition which they apparently despised? I do not know the answers to these questions, but they do point out the need for a debate in which the implications of a tendency towards the dissolution of the traditional work of art in the 1950s are interpreted afresh. For a composer the modern renaissance of the string quartet represents a desire to measure his or her art against the very best, an ultimate yardstick which gauges the relationship between tradition and renewal in the fundamental ensemble of the classical tradition, four performers intent on conveying an artistic statement of highly concentrated quality. This yardstick, however, would not be so essential had there not been performers around to make it possible.

When the Arditti Quartet received the Siemens Prize in Munich in 1999 'the first ensemble to do so', the board of the foundation stressed in particular the group's aim to combine an exceptionally high standard of musicianship with many first performances. In a presentation of the ensemble's 25-year history it was pointed out that they had established a new form of musical interpretation. Without the high standard of artistic collaboration which has grown in the past thirty and years, of which the Ardittis are the leading exponents, such a music tradition would never have developed.

John Cage once said, 'Other string quartets can't hold a candle to the Ardittis!' I have had the pleasure of observing the Arditti's career both from a distance and at close quarters over the last twenty years. I have heard them perform in all sorts of settings in many countries, seen and heard them working with students at Darmstadt, in Canada, with leading composers in London, and with Danish music in Århus, to name a few occasions that come to mind. When we entered into our first collaboration at the Henie Onstad Arts Centre in the mid 1980s, the time was not yet ripe to talk of commissioning works, and ten years passed before it became practically possible. Our dream was to create a liaison between this ensemble and Norwegian composers, a dream which finally began to take shape at the Ultima Festival in 1999. For Ultima the collaboration with the Arditti Quartet meant that we were able to demonstrate the high standard of performance on the international contemporary music scene. Ultima's aim since the early 1990s has been to present exceptional aspects of modern music with regard to musical language, form, and level of artistry. Just as important as inviting international composers and performers, however, is to ensure that we also benefit from their expertise, and create a level of experience which might throw our own music life into relief. The extended collaboration with the Ardittis has been an attempt to fulfil this vision, and it has undoubtedly created a mutual awareness of how far our music life has developed, despite its short history. A fortunate side-effect of this collaboration is that some of the works have been performed outside Norway for international audiences. And more will follow in coming years as long as the collaboration is allowed to continue. Some things never go out of fashion: quality will always win through in the end.

Geir Johnson (Translation by Andrew Smith)


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