Ruthless Jabiru, King’s College London / Arditti Quartet, Wigmore Hall review – delicate, dedicated modernism

Originally posted at The Arts Desk :

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Compelling refugee-themed concert from Australian ensemble and radical new sounds from avant-garde veterans

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★★★★✩

Ruthless Jabiru is an all-Australian chamber orchestra based in London. It is the brainchild of conductor Kelly Lovelady, who in recent years has geared the ensemble towards political and environmental concerns. Previous projects have highlighted environmental damage in central Australia and the campaign to end sponsorship by oil companies in the arts sector. For Saturday’s concert, Lovelady and her colleagues turned their attentions to the humanitarian crisis of refugees setting out for Australia by sea.

It was very much a concept event, with five contemporary works, two of them premieres, run together as a single stream of music. The setting was ideal, the intimate but elegant Pre-Raphaelite chapel of King’s College London. Candles were lit around the small ensemble – a string orchestra with percussion, harp, celesta and organ – and the gradual dimming of the daylight though the chancel windows seemed perfectly calibrated to the darkening mood of the music.

The main event here was the world premiere of The Drowners, a song cycle by Andrew Ford setting texts about tragedy at sea: “Full Fathom Five,” “Not Waving but Drowning” and others. The cycle was written for Australian baritone Morgan Pearse, and makes full use of his extraordinary vocal range. The orchestral writing is varied and complex, more emotive than dramatically pictorial, though with occasional seascapes appearing beneath the voice. The vocal writing too is adventurous – it’s always tempting to compare English-language maritime settings to Britten, but Ford goes much further in his wide-ranging and unrestrained expression.

The song cycle was the fourth of five works in the programme, which gradually increased in intensity from one work to the next. The opening piece, Zerkalo (Mirror) by Australian composer Rosalind Page (the other premiere), began the sequence on a more neutral tone, its textures gradually accumulating from isolated string sonorities, the culmination accompanied by subtle percussion effects, from the friction of the player’s hand against drum skins and cymbals. The Red Room by Nicole Lizée added an innovative celesta part into the mix. This work’s calm opening proved deceptive, as menacing textures began to emerge from the bottom of the ensemble, gradually coming to dominate in incessant repetition. That proved the perfect transition to Wolfgang Rihm’s Nature Morte – Still Alive, a work of unbridled anger and aggression, the most oppressive piece on the programme, despite only employing nine strings.

The evening concluded with the beguiling Spectralist score, The Nameless City, by Fausto Romitelli. For this, about half of the orchestra moved to the back of the chapel to provide ethereal offstage accompaniment. As well as their string instruments, the players also performed on gongs, tuning pipes and even kazoos. The use of the kazoo was particularly effective here, as a halo-like radiance around the string textures and a very long way from its usual comedy function.

As ever with this orchestra, the performance standards were impressively high, especially given the technical demands of the music: the Romitelli sounded particularly challenging, but nothing here was easy. Lovelady’s concept approach was low on info, with no printed programme or spoken introduction, a shame given the obscurity of the music and inclusion of two premieres. But the gains outweighed the losses, and the sheer innovation of her approach made this a memorable event.

The recital by the Arditti Quartet the following evening at Wigmore Hall began as Ruthless Jabiru concluded, with Spectralist music from Italy. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Sei quartetti brevi is a series of seven miniature movements, each exploring a different texture or sonority. The work was written in stages between 1967 and 1992, and has since become a classic in the field, and with good reason. Extended techniques are the rule rather than the exception: we hear slow slides across the fingerboards, bows gently coaxing sounds from the instruments, inscrutable woody sonorities, but all done with the Ardittis’ typical elegance and sophistication. The fifth movement is well named, “Presto, un pensiero a Lachenmann”, the German composer’s spirit hanging over this and every work on the programme.

Entre les lignes, a new work (2017) by French composer Philippe Hurel, came as a surprise for the composer’s reluctance to engage with extended performing techniques and to instead employ lines of imitation and counterpoint. This is still highly abstract music, so lines are never melodies and textures are never chords, but there is a traditional sense of progression and growth here absent from the other works on the programme. Those long-ranging lines can sometimes sag, but just as often the music thrills with the intensity of its sounds.

Mark Andre followed on from Sciarrino in his iv 13 (Twelve miniatures), another set of short, aphoristic movements exploring extended techniques. But Andre goes further in exploring quiet dynamics and non-resonant sonorities. The work employs old-fashioned wooden mutes – the ones with legs – and not just for their greater suppression of tone. In one movement, the other three players all mimic the cello in playing da gamba, with their instruments upright and held between the knees. This is so that they can bow the mutes, a particularly ethereal and ghostly effect.

The programme closed with Cosa resta (2016) by Sciarrino, like the Hurel and the Andre receiving its UK premiere. The work is for string quartet and countertenor, here Jake Arditti (the son of Irvine, the quartet’s leader). Sciarrino’s choice of text is inspired, an inventory of the possessions of Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto, made after the death of his widow, 40 years after his own demise. The inventory is annotated with descriptions of the objects’ condition, and they are all terrible: “leather pillows fit for nothing… old garments completely worn out…’” That is Sciarrino’s cue for his trademark whispering and woody textures, all linked to this decrepitude. But it is a loving picture of decay, endearing but not nostalgic – the objects, after all, are still present and accounted for. Jake Arditti sounded slightly coarse of tone, but navigated the complex vocal line well, giving a passable rendition of the Renaissance Italian and offering welcome guidance through the always nebulous textures of Sciarrino’s soundworld.

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