Quartetto Danel's program of (mostly) late 20th century European string quartets was recorded live at the 14th Milano Musica Festival in 2005. Uncompromising modernism characterizes Iannis Xenakis' 1983 Tetras, one of the composer's most important and frequently performed chamber works. Timbral variety is the work's most striking element; melody, easily identifiable harmony, and discernible structure are not immediately apparent. This piece should be most interesting to listeners able to respond viscerally to the gestures created primarily through extended techniques and to the considerable energy that they generate. Ergma, from 1994, is highly dissonant and seething with angst, but it is a more structurally comprehensible piece, since for much of it the performers use more conventional string techniques and play homophonically, in rhythmic unison, rather than in complex, disjunct counterpoint.
The prolixity of Xenakis, however, pales in comparison with that of Helmut Lachenmann. The quote from the program notes, "Certainly those who are tied to old habits of listening will not succeed in appreciating this work," is certainly true, and may even also apply to some who are already accustomed and committed to new habits of listening. The quartet bravely tackles Lachenmann's perversely difficult Gran Torso, written in 1972. The players capture the spirit of the work, and they convey its rebarbative sonorities with conviction, but the performance doesn't have the assurance and absolute accuracy required to bring this difficult work to life. (But then, the kinds of outrageous, apparently arbitrary demands Lachenmann makes on his performers -- awkwardly spaced pizzicato multiple stops attacked in unison, with gratuitously long rests between them, for instance -- make this a piece that's virtually impossible to perform with precision.) In contrast to what has come before, György Kurtág's very brief Aus der Ferne III shines like a beacon of serenity and simplicity. Quartetto Danel closes the concert with an entirely different style of music as an encore, the first movement of Janácek's First Quartet, which seems awkwardly out of place in this context. The sound is poor, mostly because of considerable noise, featuring loud page turning, coughing, shuffling, and sniffing. For listeners interested in this repertoire, the Arditti Quartet offers superior, more coherent performances of the Xenakis and Lachenmann, with far superior sound quality.