Listen to our Classical music blog for May Highlights

In this month’s podcast members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment discuss working with Sir Simon Rattle, and Vladimir Ashkenazy gives his personal perspective on Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony. Plus a member of Spira mirabilis talks about the ensemble’s unique approach to Beethoven’s music.

Ardittis prepare for Birtwistle premiere

Even after having hundreds of pieces composed for them, the players of the Arditti Quartet still look forward to the prospect of a world premiere. ‘It’s a challenge to bring a piece to the public, to actually take the dots off the paper and make it sound like something,’ says Irvine Arditti, first violinist and founder of the ensemble. ‘It is still pleasing to give premieres, as it is to give second performances and indeed 29th performances.’ 

This is a reference to The Tree of Strings, Harrison Birtwistle’s second string quartet. The Ardittis have performed the piece a remarkable 28 times since its 2008 premiere, testament to its popularity with both the quartet and audiences. ‘Everywhere we play it people just love the piece. I think it’s amazing because Harry was reluctant to write a string quartet yet he managed to write a masterpiece.’ 

Why would Birtwistle need, as Arditti puts it, ‘a little encouragement from me’ to compose for string quartet? ‘I think that as a clarinettist he felt he didn’t know as much about strings as he does about woodwinds and percussion, but in fact with both of his string quartets he’s proved he knows very much indeed. They’re both extremely well written for the instruments.’

The thirty-minute single-movement work was inspired by Birtwistle’s time on the Scottish island of Raasay, although, as a performer, Arditti doesn’t draw directly from the history of the piece. ‘I don’t know if I can relate to it programmatically, but we certainly never get bored with it. It’s a challenging but hugely worthwhile piece to play.’

Unsurprisingly for such a successful work, a disc is on the way. ‘We recorded it with the 9 Movements [Birtwistle’s first quartet], so there will be a release early next year of both quartets, which shall inspire him to write another one,’ says Arditti wryly.

Returning to world premieres and this evening sees another work added to the Arditti Quartet’s venerable list of first performances: Robert Saxton’s third quartet. ‘I know some of Robert’s music, but not a lot of it well,’ says Arditti. ‘He is, in some ways, a more classical composer than the Arditti Quartet is used to playing. It’s interesting to start a relationship with Robert because we are normally linked with composers like Birtwistle but it’s good to have other associations too.’

With two very different pieces on the programme, the ‘beautiful, classically-orientated’ Saxton which ‘stands out as being in quite a different style to Birtwistle,’ the quartet felt the need to programme an opening work that fell in between. They chose Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria, a work not composed for the quartet. But, as Arditti says: ‘Some music we feel we need to play and this piece is one of them’.

Such musical curiosity is a hallmark of the Arditti Quartet. For Irvine Arditti, performing new music is both a privilege and a duty. ‘I’m aware that what we do is the initial impression of a piece. For many string quartets over the years, our interpretations have been considered authentic and what the composers wanted because we work with them. I think that’s quite an important responsibility for whatever style of music it is we’re playing.’

© Tim Woodall, 2011

The Arditti Quartet gives the London premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Tree of Strings tomorrow, Tuesday 10 May, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Both Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Robert Saxton will take part in a post-concert discussion on stage. Click here to book.

Interview with iconic British composer Harrison Birtwistle

Iconic British composer Harrison Birtwistle talks to Southbank Centre’s Gillian Moore about his admiration of Olivier Messiaen.