Arditti Quartet

John Cage: Thirty Pieces for String Quartet; Jakob Ullmann: Komposition für Streichquartett 2

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As specialists in avant-garde music, the Arditti String Quartet is unrivaled for adventurousness and virtuosity, and these traits are readily displayed in this album of extreme chamber works, John Cage's Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983) and Jakob Ullmann's Komposition für Streichquartett 2 (1998-1999). The disjointedness and randomness of Cage's short gestures and isolated pitches can come across as the most exhausted modernist pointillism, yet the Arditti plays with so much character and spontaneity that the myriad tremolos, harmonics, col legno scrapes, bent pitches, and microtonal glissandi all sound fresh and vital, and the group's unity of purpose lends the Thirty Pieces a coherence and consistency that might not at first be evident: give the performance a good five minutes to establish its quirky ambiance, and everything begins to make sense. Still, as difficult as Cage's operations and results may be to comprehend, they are almost like conventional music in comparison with Ullmann's work, which spends most of its time at the threshold of audibility. Few composers have seriously exploited the quiet end of the dynamics spectrum, so Ullmann's hushed music sounds quite new and exciting. However, it takes intense concentration to follow the slight bowing effects, gentle taps, tiny squeaks, and barely voiced pitches, yet even then, this rarefied music seems to elude comprehension. All the same, the Arditti holds this fragile piece together and plays with such control and delicacy that it almost becomes transcendent. The recorded sound of these focused performances is ideally suited to their respective soundworlds, and Cage's music is nearly as palpable as Ullmann's is evanescent. This album is highly recommended to fearless listeners who enjoy intensely challenging music.

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