The way the Arditti String Quartet played it, the London premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘The Tree of Strings’ was full of drama, both intended and unintended.
The latter came after cellist Lucas Fels had extracted a succession of pizzicatos so violent that they sounded like a bass drum: no surprise when a string snapped. After a two-minute onstage pit-stop, and a helpless ‘where do we go back to?’ gesture (this was a single-movement work), the music swept on. But the intended drama was yet to come.
The work’s title referred to a political poem by Sorley Maclean, who had been born on the remote Scottish island of Raasay. Birtwistle too had lived there, and this work was his belated response. He hadn’t intended to write ‘nature music’, he told us – no evocations of mists on the horizon – but he had wanted to communicate the violence of the landscape’s weather. The fact that music had been suppressed by the Presbyterians, and that a house near his had been the site of clandestine bagpipe-lessons, had also gone into the mix.
The piece began with all four instruments playing one unison note, which then split microtonally, as though under pressure, to release a spray of wild harmonics. The style became taut and declamatory, with controlled outbursts of harmony, and the violins evincing a peachy fullness. It became clear that the cello was the dominant force, repeatedly putting a stop to what the other instruments were doing. Then the viola wandered off to a corner of the stage, followed by the second violin to another, and the first violin to a third: thus dispersed, the quartet played on like the wind through ruins. Then the three went off, leaving the cello repeating a single baleful phrase: a pizzicato note followed by a legato flourish, again and again, as though into eternity. Then the cellist too disappeared. Silence; puzzlement; some nervous laughter. Finally, enthusiastic applause.
The other pieces in this concert had nicely paved the way for this work. Kaija Saariaho’s ‘Terra Memoria’ was dedicated to ‘the departed’, and conjured up a delicately haunting sound-world in which distant voices (harmonics) echoed the voices of the vivid here-and-now. The language of Robert Saxton’s ‘String Quartet No 3’ was more opened-out, and its intricately-organised movements offered a lovely kaleidoscope of harmony and texture.