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Music Review

Arditti Quartet wraps up its residency by keeping us rapt

Explorer Roald Amundsen located success in preparation: “Victory,” he wrote, “awaits him who has everything in order.” The Arditti Quartet, explorers of musical modernism’s farthest reaches, have made expressive order for 40 years. Concluding a residency at Boston University’s Center for New Music, the group played a program at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Sunday suffused with impeccable intrepidness.

Violinist Irvine Arditti is the only player left from the 1974 lineup, but the current iteration — including violinist Ashot Sarkissjan, violist Ralf Ehlers, and cellist Lucas Fels — channels the group’s customary virtues: fluent realization of the most challenging technical demands, unswerving attention paid to the most exotic sonority. The exactness lets intricate scores bloom, as in Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No. 2, from 1989. Beneath bristling modernist crosstalk, the group’s meticulous ensemble and intonation brought out a flowing core, a pervasive, recursive lyricism.


“La Quintina,” by Joshua Fineberg, a professor of music at BU, showcased the quartet’s whatever-it-takes commitment. Inspired by Sardinian liturgical singing in which four voices combine with such purity that the illusion of a fifth voice echoes throughout the church, “La Quintina” creates its fifth voice by means of intense precision and an elaborate schema of amplification and real-time digital processing, the quartet’s playing veiled behind electronic ramifications. Measured, keening, the piece was less ecstatic than eerie: a divine spirit reimagined as a wind-whistling poltergeist.

The concert was bookended by works as much about discourse as sound. Brian Ferneyhough’s “Dum transisset I-IV,” from 2007, hides snippets of music by the 16th-century composer Christopher Tye within Ferneyhough’s favored dense, skittish complications. A dissonant thicket overruns a foundation of sliding glissandi, the edifice sinking even as it is built. Across an often violent landscape, Tye’s cadences drift like disoriented, hesitant ghosts. The piece makes fascinating tension out of the elusiveness of musical coherence.


Even more extreme was Helmut Lachenmann’s 2001 String Quartet No. 3 (“Grido”), a modern classic. For Lachenmann, customary musical tone is merely one frequency in an entire spectrum of noise. Saturated with extended techniques, hovering between sound and rasping sigh, “Grido” seems to interrogate the very possibility of music.

The quartet’s performance was instead a spellbinding display of concentrated, fully-absorbed conviction. Even Lachenmann’s most outré effects — grinding the strings into a guttural growl, bowing the pegbox for a virtually inaudible rasp — were subsumed into the work’s inexorability. It recapitulated the group’s unchanging regimen: Assiduously prepare, then set out and keep going as far as possible.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.