The Arditti quartet: ‘We ask our audience to trust us - they usually do’

Arditti Quartet. Picture: Astrid Karger

Arditti Quartet. Picture: Astrid Karger - Credit: Archant

Soon to be playing in the Hampstead Arts Festival, The Arditti make life hard for themselves by playing challenging contemporary work that’s often new

Of all the leading string quartets around the world, only the Arditti routinely set themselves the kind of challenge you’ll hear when they come to Hampstead Arts Festival next week. And the challenge is they don’t play standard repertoire: the Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms that forms the bedrock of quartet recitals.

They play music by contemporary composers: often specially commissioned, being done for the first time, which means that no one knows if it will fly or flounder.

There are easier ways to earn a living. But as Irvine Arditti, the quartet’s leader, says, “I don’t think I was put on this planet to have an easy life”. And that’s as well because new compositions aren’t just hard to learn, they’re hard to sell to audiences.

The music on the programme for this Hampstead concert isn’t BRAND new, but it’s all been written since the year 2000. And for many, the composer’s names - Birtwistle, Ades, Ferneyhough – will look formidable, although they’re names that serious listeners need to come to terms with.

“They represent three different styles of current English writing”, says Irvine, “and they’re all composers with whom we’re closely involved. Ferneyhough has written all his quartets for us, apart from the 1st. Birtwistle only took to writing string quartets late in life after I’d pestered him, and he’s now written us three”.

Bringing new works to life with the composer alongside can be a problem in itself. But in his missionary zeal for championing the new, Irvine Arditti says that for the most part it’s a joy.

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“There are occasional conflicts, but not often. Some composers are very specific about what they want to hear, some are like wild animals who give birth and walk away. Kurtag has always been hands on. Henze and Ferneyhough less so.

“And yes, there have been occasions when we’ve seen the score for the first time and declined to play it. But if you take something on I think it’s your responsibility to at least try and make it work.

“The Times once ran a review of an Arditti concert with the headline ‘These Four Must Be Stopped’, the argument being that we were dangerous because could make bad music sound good. I assume it was a compliment”.

Of all the crazy things the Arditti have inspired, the most outlandish was probably Karlheinz Stockhausen’s infamous Helicopter Quartet, which requires the four players to leave the concert hall, get into four conveniently nearby helicopters, and perform in mid-air - their sounds relayed back to the audience by radio connection.

Needless to say it isn’t often done. And Irvine admits that “when I got the score, I laughed. I’d been trying to get Stockhausen to write us a quartet for years, but he always said he didn’t do that kind of piece. Then he relented and gave us this. I’d wanted a piece we could play in any concert hall, and instead we got something that can’t be played in any. But we have actually done it seven times. More than you’d expect”.

In Hampstead there will, sadly, be no helicopters.

Nor will there be any requirement like that of the latest Georg Friderich Haas quartet which the Arditti have just premiered, calling for performance in total darkness (an invitation, you might think, for the audience to fall asleep).

In Hampstead, the lights will shine brightly. And so will the programmed pieces, which may not be easy-listening but promise to be alive, exciting, and worth whatever it takes to engage with them.

“We ask our audience to trust us”, Irvine says. “I’m glad to say, they usually do”.

Arditti Quartet at St John’s Downshire Hill, Tues 15th, 7.30pm.