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"Best of British" - John Casken etc

Arditti String Quartet/The Hilliard Vocal Ensemble

Wigmore Hall, 7 November 2009

What could instil more confidence in prospect than a contemporary music concert by two eminent specialist quartets, the Arditti String Quartet* and The Hilliard Vocal Ensemble, world leaders in their genres?

John Casken's Sharpe Thorne (1992), combining 15th C verses with S T Warner's The Lenten Offering, was a fine starter, a powerful treatment of the Cross, which one was glad to have caught up with 17 years on, but we found ourselves in deep water thence on.

Barry Guy's 1994 'modules that could be flexed, fragmented and layered' from a few random Mallarmé words sounded something like Ligeti's Aventures, and came across as juvenile fun in its belated first UK performance.

Jonathan Harvey's 2nd string quartet was worth renewing acquaintance 21 years on, with some beautiful sounds derived from "enigmatic quarter-tone chords", but I doubt if it will ever find a regular place in other string quartets' repertoires.

James Clarke's inscrutable Untitled No 4 (2007) - Ovid set in pre-Christian Latin - and Simon Bainbridge's new Celan setting provided impenetrable, indigestible and incomprehensible fare, with texts supplied but nigh impossible to follow; there were sufficient fans and followers present to give their airings a semblance of success, but this was a true "contemporary music ghetto" event which felt out of place at Wigmore Hall. Other reports from members of the cognoscenti present would be welcome.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Irvine Arditti (violin) 1974-
Ashot Sarkissjan (violin) 2005-
Ralf Ehlers (viola) 2003-
Lucas Fels (cello) 2006-
Previous members:
Violin 2: Lennox Mackenzie 1974-1983
Alexander Balanescu 1983-85
David Alberman 1985-1994
Graeme Jennings 1994-2005
Viola: Levine Andrade 1974-1990
Garth Knox 1990-1997
Dov Scheindlin 1997-2002
Cello: John Senter 1974-1976
Helen Liebmann 1976-77
Rohan de Saram 1977-2005