Classical Music: Perfect vehicle for a family of four

Bath Festival Contemporary Music Weekend
The string quartet has come a long way since Charles Ives described it as "four men who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up - then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament". Bath's Contemporary Music Weekend, which rounded off the festival with no fewer than five quartet concerts, showed that - for better or worse - it's the medium's conceptual neutrality which attracts composers today, especially those of an experimental bent who might, at a pinch, acknowledge Ives as a father- figure. The tendency has spawned specialist groups like the Kronos and the Duke, who concentrate on minimalist, ethnic or crossover and leave the heavy, pseudo-intellectual stuff to such as the Arditti. The Arditti would not programme Kevin Volans or John Adams.

This can be either invigorating or depressing, depending on what's actually being played. A well-made piece of ethno-minimalism like Volans's Hunting Gathering, which opened the Duke Quartet's beautifully played Sunday morning concert in the Guildhall, is a genuinely good piece, whereas a poor work like the Latvian Peteris Vasks's second quartet, in the same concert, left one feeling that the old taboos and mystiques had a lot to recommend them. Volans, though his material is studiedly plain, crafts it with an immaculate sense of design and medium. Vasks, on the other hand, seems obsessed with texture (he has a good aural imagination and a precise ear), but easy-going about structure - a fatal defect in this unforgiving genre.

In the same way, the intricate fantasies of Thomas Ades's Arcadiana, which the Arditti played dazzlingly in the afternoon, owe almost nothing to the classical quartet. But who cares about that, with writing of such incredible subtlety and economy? By contrast, Akira Nishimura's "Avian" Quartet no 3 (here having its UK premiere) seemed merely to be using the medium for a bit of sonic target-practice. Gubaidulina's second quartet is meticulous in its use of expressive sound as musical material - an essentially classical way of thinking, but Schnittke's second quartet reduces ideas to gestures and typically lets form go hang.

Wall to wall, these modern quartets do each other few favours. The first one that quotes Bach (it happened to be J Peter Koene in his lively - but not very individual - Rent in Twain in the Duke programme), or supports bird noises with long-held cello notes or pedal harmonies, may sound fresh and original. But by the time six or seven of them have done some or all of these things, one could write the eighth oneself. The fact that it would have stylistic schizophrenia is no great comfort.