When I spoke to Arditti a month or so ago, his quartet was fresh from performing at the Donaueschingen Festival in southern Germany. "Hindemith and Stravinsky had first performances there," he says, "though it's rare for a chamber ensemble to be invited. We came home via Frankfurt, where there was a Boulez Festival taking place. Boulez was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and his own Ensemble InterContemporain, and we gave one of two chamber concerts." Then there's Rouen, Strasbourg, Vienna. Europe knows the Ardittis as a household name; we hardly know them at all.
The idea for a new music quartet first occurred to Arditti in 1974 when he and violist Levine Andrade were studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Even before then, 13-year-old Irvine was fascinated by the radical creations of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez, Ligeti and Xenakis. "The first time I left England - I was about 15 years old, I think - was to go to the Darmstadt International Centre for Contemporary Music," he recalls. "I met Stockhausen and was very taken with the sort of things that he was doing then. I also met Ligeti. Then I remember dragging my mother down to Oxford because Xenakis and Messiaen were there." This was the period when Pierre Boulez led the BBC Symphony Orchestra, when our musical life still had balls; a time before audience ratings dictated artistic policy. "These were my influences and so I resolved to form a group that would play this music and take it seriously - though I never dreamed things would turn out as they have!"
Much of the quartet's history has seen Irvine Arditti as leader and Rohan de Saram as cellist, with various personnel changes in between (the current line-up includes Graeme Jennings on second violin and Dov Scheindlin on viola). "As Rohan and I grow older, we find younger people who are much quicker, even better than those we found 25 years ago."
The Arditti's repertoire stretches back to the century's auspicious musical beginnings, from Bartok, Janacek, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Roslavets, Vyschnegradsky, to today's boldest and youngest. Most of the music they play is strong meat, meaning unselfconscious and uncompromisingly original, from the sparse textures of Morton Feldman to the knotted intricacies of Brian Ferneyhough.
The idea is to encourage new repertoire, take pieces from one country and play them in another. "For example, we were one of the first to play Wolfgang Rihm in England," Arditti reminds me. "But nowadays, music is changing. People are doing their own thing much more; each young composer arrives with a different voice - it's constantly refreshing. Fifteen years ago, people used to ask us, `Why do you only play new music?' Now the question hardly ever arises." Numerous composers have written music especially for the quartet, not least the veteran "modern" American Elliott Carter, whose new Piano Quintet is being played by Ursula Oppens and the Ardittis at both the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the Barbican.
The Arditti "experience" (my term,, not Irvine's) has been well documented on the valuable but still little-known Auvidis Montaigne "Arditti String Quartet Edition", which now runs to some 32 volumes. Montaigne's founder was the late Pierre Lebaillif, an ardent new music enthusiast who happened to attend one of the Arditti's concerts at the Avignon Festival. "He was astounded, even dismayed that our repertoire was not fully recorded and set about preparing a series especially for us, to have things organised under a single label. That series is still going strong." The latest Volume, No 32 (though it's not named as such on the CD box) is an all-Carter programme that includes the 1994-5 Fifth String Quartet.
Modern-minded they may be, innovative too - and certainly adventurous. But trendy they most definitely are not. The Ardittis' leading priority is to encourage people to write well for the medium, support quality music and enter into the closest possible artistic relationship with those composers who they choose to champion (trusted "talent scouts" constantly bring new names to their attention). They will have no truck with an amiable "middle road", not because they disapprove of it, but because they have neither the time nor the inclination to deviate from their chosen route.
Does Arditti then consider that his fashionable drive towards more accessible fare is, in a sense, a digression away from more significant - albeit sometimes less immediately appealing - repertory choices? "It's only a digression if you consider it a digression," he says candidly. "Our objective and aim is to help continue the tradition of string quartet writing from the latter part of the 19th-century and the earlier part of this century, coming from Schubert and late Beethoven quartets, through Bartok and the Second Viennese School to the present time.
"It's true that we don't actually play all those composers, but that is our thinking: to try and encourage people who, above all, know and understand the medium. Other quartets might veer in a different direction, toy with so-called "cross-overs", maybe even jazz. But for me, too many of these composers don't know how to write for a string quartet. The results tend to be shabby, and nothing whatever to do with genuine string quartet music."
But what about arrangements, even if only for use as encores? Not a hope. "I accept that making arrangements of lighter styles of music may be necessary to achieve a bigger audience," Arditti concedes, "but I prefer to encourage the people who want to come and listen to what we do. I'm not interested in bad arrangements: I'd rather listen to, say, Jimi Hendrix unadulterated. But if that's the objective for other groups then... fine."
The Arditti Quartet and Ursula Oppens play Elliott Carter's Piano Quintet at 7.30pm tonight at the Huddersfield Festival (01484 430528) and at 7.30pm tomorrow night at the Barbican Hall (0171-638 8891)Reuse content