The Strad Issue: January 2008
Musicians: Arditti String Quartet
Composer: Lachenmann

True to form, Helmut Lachenmann treats not only the players but their instruments as physical, living bodies. These pieces of wood breathe, chatter, fart, snore and sigh in a soap opera of musical personalities scraping along together. What they don’t often do is sing – any more than most of us do in real life, I dare say – and the resonance of bow on string is rare, at least in the first two pieces; the four-note chord nine minutes into the second, Reigen der Seliger Geister, comes as a real and doubtless intentional shock. No wonder that Irvine Arditti asked for a louder piece, and Lachenmann duly obliged with Grido (Shout). It’s much the most obviously communicative of the three pieces, and the Arditti players have championed it in concert halls with their trademark accuracy and commitment in a way that the near-inaudibility of the previous two perhaps perversely failed to allow.

If you are struggling to perceive sense in such iconoclasm, the booklet notes will be no help, confirming every sceptic’s view of the hermetically sealed pretension of the European avant-garde. Still, this is an important disc – Grido won the RPS award for best new composition in 2002 – and one can hardly imagine the Kairos recording or the Arditti Quartet’s performances being improved upon by any brave souls who may follow in their path. Lachenmann is much more than an elaborate joke against the ears, and the effort to find out why is nearly always rewarded, not least by one’s own intensified sensitivity to humanity’s sounds and signs whether in Mozart or a bus station.  

Peter Quantrill