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.

Emerson String Quartet prepare for premiere of Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters

Bringing a new piece of music to life is a collaborative, communicative process. Composers invariably meet with the musicians premiering their work in order to discuss issues arising with the score and troubleshoot problems. For The Four Quarters, the new string quartet by Thomas Adès, that moment was in late January, when Adès stopped over to see the Emerson String Quartet in New York, en route from Miami to London. ‘I think we absorbed a sense of what the piece was about, as is often the case when we work together with a composer for the first time,’ says Eugene Drucker, violinist in the Emerson Quartet, of the session. ‘Tom was very nice and wasn’t expecting an absolutely polished performance, since it was still seven weeks until the premiere.’

Instead, the quartet had the opportunity to further realise the composer’s musical vision for The Four Quarters, which was commissioned by the Carnegie Hall, New York. ‘It has been a challenge to learn in certain ways,’ says Drucker. ‘The piece’s complexity comes from the rhythm, the way the measures are arranged. It’s sort of a new language we’ve been learning.’ The quartet discussed technical aspects of the work with Adès. For example, in the last movement, “The Twenty-fifth Hour”, the violins are required to alternate quickly between ‘artificial harmonics and normal notes’. Adès was ‘looking for a certain effect’ with this compositional device, says Drucker, and ‘it became clear that he was imagining a kind of yodelling effect, so I changed the way I was playing it.’

The meeting was also a chance for Thomas Adès to discuss the new work’s themes with the quartet, though Drucker suggests that the piece’s loose programmatic aspect could be more for the listeners than the musicians. ‘I don’t think it is something Tom wants to pin down exactly,’ he says. ‘The title refers to four times of day, but I’m not sure how much importance he wants us as performers to attach to the movement titles. Perhaps he’d like the audience to think of those titles while listening to the piece.’ Regardless of the technical challenges or the thematic aspects of the work, Drucker says that what has struck him most about The Four Quarters is the way ‘the beauty of its textures and the sense of overarching shape comes across in each of the four movements.’

The process of discovery Drucker describes is part of what appeals to the Emerson String Quartet about performing new music. ‘We play one or two contemporary works a year, and sometimes we carry over a work from the previous season, as we’ll do with Tom’s piece,’ says Drucker, although the ‘main thrust of our activity is with the standard repertoire.’ The two pieces framing The Four Quarters in this concert are as familiar to the Emerson Quartet as the Adès is new. The quartet have won Grammy awards for recordings of both the complete Mendelssohn (2005) and Beethoven (1997) quartets. Eugene Drucker describes the third Op.44 Mendelssohn quartet as a pleasure to play even though it’s demanding technically’, while Beethoven’s Op.131 is ‘one of the great works of the entire string quartet literature’.

It is unusual for a quartet to frequently perform new music without making it a speciality, but the Emersons have always questioned long-held traditions, as can be seen in their name, taken from a poet-philosopher rather than a composer or instrumentalist. A well-known Emerson String Quartet innovation is their on-stage set up. The three upper strings stand while cellist David Finckel’s chair sits on a podium. The idea to break away from the conventional seating plan arose during the quartet’s 25th anniversary season in 2001, as Eugene Drucker explains: ‘We were performing six Haydn quartets at the Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, New York, and we were concerned that the programme would not have sonic impact enough to engage the audience’s attention.’ They hit on the idea of standing and found that ‘there’s something about getting our instruments farther from the floor of the stage that makes the sound project further.’

 Tim Woodall © 2011

The Emerson String Quartet performs Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters alongside works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Thursday 7 April. Click here for full details and to book.

Violinist Julia Fischer talks total Schumann

Julia Fischer, photo by Julia Wesely

Julia Fischer and Martin Helmchen previously recorded and toured the complete violin and piano works of Schubert. This time they’re tackling Schumann on a three-date tour, including Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 29 November.

 

What is the appeal of single composer programmes, and why Schumann? ‘When I play a traditional recital it tends to be more about me than the pianist; for example, in a mixed repertoire programme there is often a solo piece,’ explains Julia Fischer. ‘When I have an artist like Martin playing in concert with me, I want to have a full project to present.’

 

That the duo this time plumped for a composer from the same period and country is unsurprising. ‘Martin is really the best pianist of his generation for the German classical and romantic repertory, meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms,’ she says – a compliment that could equally apply to herself as a violinist. ‘So for me it was obvious that our next project had to be about one of those composers.’

 

Of the five composers Fischer mentions however, Schumann is the least renowned as a composer of violin music. She acknowledges that his three violin sonatas are relative rarities: ‘The Schumann violin sonatas are underestimated and not often enough performed in concert.’ This is not, she says, because Schumann is a difficult composer, as is so often suggested. ‘It is not true that musicians and audiences find Schumann’s music awkward, because in his output you find some of the canon’s most popular works – the piano concerto, cello concerto and lieder,’ she says.

 

Rather, Fischer subtly observes that, as a pianist, Schumann ‘couldn’t reward the violinist in the way he might have otherwise’. It is a gentle way of saying that Schumann’s violin writing wasn’t always fluent, even if, as a melodist, he was unrivalled. ‘If you take the violin part of his violin concerto, for example, and simply play it on the piano, it sounds absolutely marvellous,’ she says. ‘But if you have to play it on the violin, you really have to figure out how to make it sound right. Schumann tends to stay in a low register, which is rarely rewarding for a soloist. It is dangerous technically too, because although the notes themselves can appear simple, you have to be really smart in terms of fingerings and bowings.’

 

This is a challenge that Fischer relishes, but it is not an intellectual exercise. She places great importance on balancing the intellectual and emotional aspects of performing – something she appreciates in Helmchen too. ‘He is a very intelligent musician; he really thinks very deeply about what he is doing and how he performs,’ she says. ‘But he doesn’t forget that in the end it is about emotions and feelings. He can close his intellectual door and just enjoy playing music. This combination is really important.’

 

Both artists clearly enjoy the total immersion approach to preparing recitals. ‘When we did the Schubert project, we tried to learn everything about him,’ remembers Fischer. ‘And with Schumann it will be the same way.’ Ultimately, she believes that the musical complexity and intensity of expression that is inherent in all Schumann’s music is better explored in isolation. ‘If you have an entire evening of Schumann, rather than slotting one piece into a programme, audiences really get to know his musical language and get a feeling for how he wrote for these instruments,’ she says. ‘That is only possible if you have the courage to dedicate the whole evening to him.’

 

Will Fischer and Helmchen dedicate a whole disc to Schumann too? ‘We will work on that,’ is all she will give away.

 

Interview by Tim Woodall

 

Click here to book for Julia Fischer and Martin Helmchen’s 29 November recital.  

The Tetzlaff Quartet: the power of friendship

 

 

Tetzlaff Quartet

Tetzlaff Quartet

For many international artists, playing chamber music is associated with the holidays. With the hectic city-hopping season left behind, the summer is a time to settle down for a week or two in a beautiful location – Aspen, Verbier, Tanglewood – and perform in temporary ensembles.

The members of the Tetzlaff Quartet also enjoy busy careers of course, but their dedication to chamber music, and indeed to each other, means making time within the season itself. ‘Every year we do one or two tours,’ says Christian Tetzlaff as he explains that, while the quartet only meet rarely, they continue to grow together as an ensemble.

The group has been doing this for 16 years, but it is not a set-up without challenges. Rehearsal periods are hard to organise, for example, and as second violinist Elisabeth Kufferath says, ‘We all live in different cities, so there are logistical issues’. But for Tetzlaff, there are distinct advantages to coming together only sporadically. ‘We have been playing together for a long time now but we are still eager for those few weeks together,’ he says. ‘I am not saying that full-time quartets lose that eagerness, but we feel that we gain a sense of spontaneity and a good feeling on stage, precisely because we have so few opportunities to do it.’

Inevitably, the quartet’s repertoire is selective. Choosing works to perform from such a large catalogue is, Tetzlaff says, ‘done on instinct’. It is interesting to note that many of the composers to whom the quartet often return are less regularly performed by other string quartets. This trend began on day one. ‘We first met at a festival in Austria and played just one piece there together, the Schoenberg D minor quartet,’ he says. ‘We worked on it for a whole week.’

The ensemble’s most recent recording pairs the Schoenberg quartet with another D minor (and rarely heard) work, and the final piece performed in the quartet’s concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday 21 October, Voces intimae by Sibelius. It is not a particular surprise to find Tetzlaff championing Sibelius’ music; he has recorded the composer’s complete works for violin on the Virgin Classics label. ‘For us it is one of the great quartets,’ says Tetzlaff of Voces intimae, ‘but it has been completely and utterly neglected for the past 100 years. For many famous string quartets, Sibelius was a persona non grata.’ Elisabeth Kufferath agrees. ‘It is a piece that is not played very much, and even among our musician friends, there is a feeling that the Sibelius is a strange piece. For us, it is strange in such a deep, wonderful and emotional way.’

Tetzlaff is similarly passionate about Dvořák. ‘The chamber music works of Dvořák mean a lot to me,’ he says. ‘I have performed vast amounts of his music at the Heimbach Festival. Dvořák’s late works especially are some of the best chamber music we have.’

It is not just the personal choice of repertoire that makes Tetzlaff Quartet tours so eagerly anticipated by the players, but also friendship. ‘We enjoy playing together and inspiring each other but, more than anything, we’re great friends’ says Elisabeth Kufferath. She is certainly inspired by Tetzlaff, whom she describes as ‘a wonderful musician, the best you could fathom and more.’ For Tetzlaff, chamber music itself is a ‘medium for friends to speak to each other of intimate things’. Such camaraderie, musical and personal, will certainly sustain the quartet as they perform the seven European concerts that precede their appearance at Southbank Centre on 21 October, the final of the tour.

© Tim Woodall, 2010

Click here to book tickets for 21 October

Daniel Hope discusses playing Mendelssohn’s Octet

Daniel Hope

Daniel Hope, Copyright Harald Hoffmann - Deutsche Grammophon

Daniel Hope has made a name for himself as an artist with an enquiring mind and a diverse range of interests. As well as being a violinist, he is a broadcaster, writer, producer and musical activist. It is, he acknowledges, a very busy life, and there is never enough time. ‘Since the trio disbanded the amount of chamber music that I do has reduced quite substantially,’ he says, referring to the Beaux Arts Trio, arguably the most successful chamber group of its type, that Hope led from 2002 to 2008. ‘So when the opportunity arose to come and perform with friends and colleagues in London, I jumped at it. As soloists we can’t exist without chamber music; in a sense it represents the vitamins in our diet.’

The trio may no longer be a part of his life, but he is still very active as a chamber musician. He has toured internationally with Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, playing the violin in her critically acclaimed Theresienstadt project (including a packed out International Chamber Music Season performance in September 2010). For the past seven years he has been Associate Artistic Director at the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia, where he curates concerts every year. Some of the players Hope regularly invites to the festival join him for tonight’s concert. ‘The players that come down to Savannah are Carla Maria Rodriguez [viola], who I’ve known since I was a child at the Menhuin School, and Benny Kim, a fantastic violinist who has really played with them all, from Itzhak Perlman to Pinchas Zukerman.’ He continues: ‘From the UK, there are both old friends and younger talent. Violist Philip Dukes, for example, I’ve known and worked with now for almost 15 years and is one of the most accomplished chamber musicians that I know. Then, representing some of the finest young British musicians, we have players like Laura Samuel, violinist with the Belcea Quartet.’

Hope leads his line-up, which he describes as a ‘transatlantic mix’, in two evergreen works for small ensemble, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence for string sextet, and Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat. The latter is especially close to his heart. His 2007 recording of the Mendelssohn Octet with members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe was well received and the piece has lost none of its wonder for him. ‘Mendelssohn started composing it when he was 13. It’s just outrageous that someone of that age could write something that is so masterful,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s got absolutely everything: virtuosic parts and beautiful melodies. It’s tremendously fun and yet it has great pathos and depth. For somebody so young it’s absolutely amazing.’

The Octet’s youthful vitality should not be approached too breezily though, as Hope explains. ‘There are pitfalls to be aware of with the piece. The obvious problem is that everyone tends to play too loud because it’s easy to have a good time and really go for it. That means details get covered up; in Mendelssohn the intricacy of the inner parts is wonderful.’ There is a danger with both the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, he says, that ‘even though they’re very fun when played fast, it is important not to take either piece too quickly. For example, the Scherzo in the Mendelssohn, which we do tend to take at quite a lick, still needs to have complete control. As well as being virtuosic, it has to have that light, leggiero quality that Mendelssohn always asks for.’

Hope’s allusion to the young composer’s specific wishes is indicative of his approach to this music. Despite the fact these pieces may be very familiar to audiences, for Hope, the interpretation should be set by the score and nothing else. ‘It is important to be as honest as possible about the way you feel about the music and not only try to look for something that is different to what others have done.’ He concludes: ‘It is also important to take on board the experience of other players, because everyone has performed the Mendelssohn many times. Every time you sit down to play with somebody you learn something from them. There is a kind of ping-pong that goes on between eight people and I always find that very stimulating.’

© Tim Woodall, 2010

Click here for more information on Daniel Hope’s concert at Southbank Centre on 28 September.