Portrait Irvine Arditti & Quatuor Arditti

The Arditti Quartet, that legendary contemporary music ensemble, was founded in 1974 by Irvine Arditti. Over the past five decades, ten musicians have taken turns sitting at its different music stands to perform alongside Arditti, staying anywhere from two to twenty-five years. Although the quartet’s contemporary repertoire involves no musical hierarchy (“all the parts are written for soloists”), Irvine Arditti has been the central pillar of a group responsible for producing a dizzying list of new compositions and recordings that reads like an encyclopaedia. “Without wanting to sound arrogant, it’s safe to assume the history of contemporary music would have been different if the Arditti Quartet had never existed.” The archives of this international living treasure have been added to the collections of the Paul Sacher Foundation, which has already begun storing files on microfilm and classifying documents (recordings, annotated sheet music, and more, all accessible to researchers), attesting to this exceptional adventure.

Irvine Arditti “fell” into contemporary music while his classmates were in the throes of Beatlemania. At age thirteen, he attended a concert in Oxford by the National Orchestra, which was touring the works of Olivier Messiaen and Iannis Xenakis. He also listened to German radio stations and grew particularly fond of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music, whom he found “more accessible” than Boulez. Arditti would also go on to participate in a performance of the former’s Hymnen, with Jonathan Harvey on keyboards, who would go on to write Arditti’s first quartet in 1977. At age fifteen, Irvine Arditti left England for the first time to attend a summer course at the Darmstadt School. (His violin teachers never taught past Bartók.) He was also studying composition, but quickly gave that up, feeling too influenced by Ligeti, despite the fact that one of his own early orchestra pieces was conducted by his fellow musician, Simon Rattle.

As Concertmaster for the London Symphony Orchestra, Arditti decided to leave the orchestra world in 1980 and transform his quartet “hobby” –  practised among friends – into a profession. Did he feel he was taking a risk? “No, I always thought it was my destiny to play the music of my time! Isn’t this why I was sent to this planet? I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Destiny – in what can exist without anyone being there to control it.” He was inspired by the La Salle Quartet and gained confidence after an extended conversation with Iannis Xenakis. “When I told him certain passages of Mikka were unplayable because of their tempo, he looked at me for a long time – he never gave direct responses – and eventually said: ‘You’ll find a way!’ At the time, I had no idea just how important those words were, but they summed up my entire ambition.”

The Quartet’s approach consists of ensuring that musicians and composers learn from one another: in other words, that they strive for the common extension of creativity and instrumental practice. “The Arditti Quartet has never taken lessons from anyone except composers. When Kurtág talks to you about his own music, what he says is important for playing all types of music.” Unhappy with something he himself had written in one of his compositions, Hans Werner Henze ended up conducting the musicians in the recording studio. What stimulates the quartet is the variety of sounds they need to adopt – like Xenakis’ dry and tremolo-free tone, Helmut Lachenmann’s “noise” techniques, or the different types of vibrato in a single work, as required by Brian Ferneyhough’s compositions.

Krysztov Penderecki was the first composer to travel to prepare a concert with the Arditti Quartet, followed by György Ligeti (at the time, the Ardittis were the only group to perform his two quartets). The fruitful collaboration with Ferneyhough created a “snowball” effect, where composers would write for the quartet, and specifically request them (Carter, Dutilleux…): “We became the experts.” The Arditti Quartet eventually silenced all sceptics. After hesitating for a long time, Luigi Nono finally listened to them rehearse Fragmente, Stille…an Diotima, and had only one thing to say: “Bellissimo!” Their stubborn insistence that Stockhausen write them a piece eventually paid off, even if the result (i.e., Helikopter­streichquartett, with its four helicopters) turned out to be less convenient to perform on tour than planned…

Despite the fact that their 1980s recordings occasionally sound a little al dente, they nevertheless express all the generosity of the Quartet’s commitment: their performances are always precise, and the music is immediately there, as if in 3D. “Their sound is striking in its precision and virtuosity, with a vast palette of colours,” as violist Ralf Ehlers once stated, just before joining the quartet himself.

Mastering the capacity to perform hundreds of styles – the Arditti Quartet’s inspired “polyglotism” – demands that the musicians grasp them quickly. They cannot be greedy with their time when reading through the sheet music, and must sometimes even learn pieces by heart. Given all this, how is it possible to forge a common sound? “In some subtle and unconscious way, each of us eventually influences everyone else’s sound,” says violinist Ashot Sarkissjan. This process is constantly evolving, adds Ralf Ehlers, even though “Irvine’s sound remains the point of reference.” And they all boast of his exuberant energy, his warmth, his wisdom, and a playful mind that defies time.

Martin Kaltenecker –
from an interview with Irvine Arditti on 28 April 2017 in London

Members of Arditti Quartet: Irvine Arditti (violin), Ashot Sarkissjan (violin), Ralf Ehlers (viola), Lucas Fels (cello)