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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own