The young, vibrant Ligeti Quartet began an enjoyable, if somewhat challenging, afternoon at the Holywell Music Room with an unusual choice: a disjointed but somehow relatable confusion of a piece by John Zorn. Although not most people’s first choice of style to sit and listen to, Cat O’Nine Tails was great fun to watch and, by the looks of it, play. Dramatically led by Mandhira de Saram, the quartet’s clear enthusiasm shone through their playing, involving the audience fully in this interesting musical journey. From eery and quiet passages to moments of almost musical comedy to varied sound effects, this piece showed versatility in the players, incorporating a surprising but thoroughly enjoyable range of styles. It jumped from mood to mood; a few emotion-filled bars here and a snatch of what sounded like laughter there. With no clear structure the music was somehow still comfortable to listen to.
Even if contemporary music is generally not to your taste, this piece is worth a listen – or better yet a ticket to a live performance. Much movement kept the quartet tightly together in monstrously complicated rhythms and timings. Technically demanding, the piece seemed to use every established technique for string instruments, as well as a number that appeared to have been created by the composer for specific effects and sounds. The quartet certainly proved themselves up to the challenge. These techniques and effects are successful as surprises, so make the effort to see this quartet when Zorn is on the programme.
The second piece, Nicola Price’s String Quartet No. 1, was equally as interesting, but perhaps something of a mistake to place after the Zorn in a last minute change to the programme. In a similar style and similarly challenging to listen to, it became slightly anti-climactic through a lack of the excitement found in the first piece. There was far more feeling to it, however, and, as a world premiere and having worked with the composer herself as well as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies during the conception of the piece, the quartet showed enthusiasm and passion in the performance. A slow, serene, continuous section in particular, in which no silence occurred at all and all four parts owned the melody in turn and then overlapped, mercilessly pulled around the emotions of the listener. The fascinating unease of the piece matched the greying sky through the high windows of the building, only adding to the impressive atmosphere being created by these musicians.
Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in B flat major (op. 133) concluded the first half. It became clear that the quartet’s real strength is in more contemporary music through what felt like a slight lack of control to start with and a touch of overexcitement. It didn’t fail in being a dramatic performance, though. In any case it’s almost impossible not to be moved in a venue such as this; the audience cannot fail to be touched by the music, almost physically with Welbanks’ rich cello notes resounding through the room and causing vibrations that you can feel through the wooden floor under your feet.
It was the Bartok where this quartet really shone. Having never particularly enjoyed the composer before, the feelings evoked by the music came somewhat as a surprise. The players showed technique, emotion and passion simultaneously and their enjoyment in playing together came through clearly, as well as their love for the music. True ensemble playing could be seen in the way the melody passed seamlessly from instrument to instrument, the subtle contact between the four throughout, and the impressively accurate unison fast sections. The sound was perfectly balanced and controlled in what must be a challenging acoustic in this prestigious building. It is informal yet imposing, intimate yet grand, however de Saram, Dawkins, Jones and Welbanks used this to their advantage; they created a performance of impressive musical ability interspersed with friendly discussion of how they had worked with Price in the composition of her piece or what they felt the music portrayed and how they had gone about exploring and playing this in terms of the Beethoven and Bartok.
The plucked Bartok encore provided a whimsical end to an afternoon of music that to an audience member looked challenging but became exciting and thought provoking when played by the talented Ligeti Quartet.