Arditti Quartet

Cristóbal Halffter: The String Quartets, Vol. 1

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Cristóbal Halffter, nephew of Ernesto Halffter, was the principal conduit for German avant-garde techniques into Spain from the 1950s onward; still active in the new century, he's something of a survivor of pure modernism, and those who are happy to see it go are hereby cautioned. You get not only a dose of the twelve-tone system here but also still more recondite devices, such as a set of silences (in the String Quartet No. 3) whose lengths are dictated by the Fibonacci series. For those still on board, the earliest of the music here, the Tres piezas para cuarteto de cuerda (Three Pieces for String Quartet), from 1955, flirts with a twelve-tone system but is in reality a sort of grab bag of the techniques in the air at the time; there are hints of Stravinsky and especially of Bartók with the dense instrumental textures and snatches of Spanish folk rhythms. It's not an especially convincing work, and the performers might have been advised to break the chronological sequence of leave it for last. The String Quartet No. 3 and String Quartet No. 6 are much later works, themselves separated by two-dozen years but both making use of rigorously sculpted large-scale contrasts. The String Quartet No. 3 depends on phases of instrumental unison (tonal or rhythmic), discord, and the aforementioned silence. It's easily imagined as the counterpart to the abstract modern artwork that was involved in the circumstances of its creation, and despite the hidden mathematical procedures it's fairly straightforward for the listener. Halffter occupies an interesting space between the centers of the European avant-garde and a scene in which, even after the end of Spain's rightist dictatorship, certain compromises had to be struck. The Arditti Quartet, which thrives on this kind of music, delivers exacting readings of some very difficult pieces. The booklet, with a hardback binding and stickers that the buyer is invited to paste onto the cover to create his or her own design (apparently an homage to Halffter's combinatorial procedures), is in German, English, French, and Spanish.

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