COMPOSERS: Sir Harrison Birtwistle
ALBUM TITLE: Birtwistle Complete String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartet: The Tree of Strings; Nine Movements for String Quartet
PERFORMER: Arditti Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: AECD1217
This is the Ardittis’ second recording of the Nine Movements: the first was in the context of Pulse Shadows, an interleaving of the movements with settings of Paul Celan for soprano and ensemble. Here, the overall pacing is more urgent, reinforced by up-front recording and greater aggression in the playing: the explosive openings of the first two movements have an edge and excitement which the earlier version didn’t quite capture. Five of the movements are fantasias, and they are more varied in speed and mood, while the four ‘friezes’ keep a constant tempo, but, as you would expect from Birtwistle, never lapse into rhythmic monotony.
The Ardittis have mastered the constant turning on dimes that this mercurial writing demands, moving effortlessly between different dynamics, timbres and attacks, while still keeping the music tightly coiled. Their performance of the unbroken half-hour span of The Tree of Strings is equally impressive, illuminating the continuity of the music, with its passionate outbursts, changing harmonic density and sometimes complex rhythmic layering. Inspired by the bleak landscape of the Scottish island of Raasay, where Birtwistle lived for a while, this is not comfortable music, but it’s the real thing.