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.

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