Irvine Arditti on Wolfgang Rihm
“He has this chameleon-like ability”
You gave your first world première of Rihm’s music in 1983 with the 5th String Quartet. Since then, you have played 17 Rihm-world-premières.
Arditti: I think in 1983 it was the first time we played a note of Rihm, actually. The concert was in Brussels, I remember, and in fact we didn’t know each other before then.
I’d certainly heard of him, but I didn’t really know his music. But we were even younger when Rihm first heard the Arditti Quartet, because Wolfgang was in the very first concert we gave outside of the UK, which was in 1976 in Karlsruhe, in the radio studio. I had no idea that Wolfgang was in the concert, he was only 24 at that time. He related this experience to me much later. I didn’t know until about 10 years ago.
After the first concert in Brussels we had lots of contact with him, and soon after then we featured him at the Almeida Festival, where we played three of the Fremde Szenen, the third and fifth quartets, and this is how our relationship with him started.
I think Rihm is a string-quartet-composer depending on which quartet he is writing for. I’ve heard orchestral works that are very classically orientated, and that don’t sound like the same composer. I remember hearing Mnemosyne for soprano and orchestra, which was written for the Berlin Philharmonic, and that’s a very classically orientated piece, and I suppose that the fourth quartet written for the Alban Berg Quartet and the ninth, written for the Emerson Quartet, are more classical than the ones he wrote for us; more lyrical, more harmonic content. The Arditti Quartet inspires composers to go to the limits of their creative desires, so in some ways he’s not restricted by technical limitations, and I think that’s very true of most of the pieces that Wolfgang has written for us. They’re very energetic pieces, very difficult pieces. The fifth quartet is a very complex 25 minute one-movement driving piece that takes quite a lot of energy to perform. The fifth was a departure for him I think.
The piece that is central to your cooperation is Fetzen, where he started adding an additional part, as he also did later with Akt und Tag. Is that a logical, welcome development? Is he saying something about the medium of the string quartet?
Arditti: I think we’ve had discussions over the years about expanding and doing things with other instrumentations. I thought he would be good at writing a piece for string quartet and orchestra, which inspired the creation of the Dithyrambe, and I remember trying to get the commission together in Amsterdam. It’s not a logical continuation, but with a composer who’s written many many string quartets that are successful, it’s nice to have pieces with other situations.
The concept of Fetzen was Wolfgang’s idea. The cycle started with my asking him to write a short piece for a short programme when we won the Siemens prize in 1999. I wanted to ask 4 or 5 composers that I considered very important to the quartet to write pieces that we could play in the ceremony. And then Wolfgang decided he was going to write more and Fetzen 2 came along and that was the end of the quartet. Then it started expanding, with the accordion in Fetzen 3. And then there’s the viola and accordion one. The sonorities between the accordion and the quartet work fantastically well. That was initiated by Wolfgang to continue doing that and carry the piece to its end.
There’s a lot of material from Jagden und Formen in there, it’s one of those pieces where Wolfgang employs ,cross-fertilisation’. The 12th Quartet is identical to the Piano Quintet. He adds the piano and makes the piece sound completely different. What I like about Wolfgang is the fact that he’s able to re-use material and make the piece sound completely different. He has a real ability for this, which I find admirable. It takes real musical qualities to understand that you can do that and change the whole concept of listening.
ET LUX is very different. Here’s a piece with a vocal quartet, a long way away from the 5th quartet. Can you remember your reaction on receiving the score?
Arditti: We asked him to write a piece for a collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble. He said it was going to be a requiem and he’d had an idea for the piece for many years, and this was his opportunity to actually write it. So even from the very beginning of discussing the commission I got the impression that it would be a different sort of piece. I think it’s fantastic that a composer has the ability to write different sorts of music. I imagined that we wouldn’t be playing the same sort of material as in the quartets he wrote for us.
Was it recognisably Rihm?
Arditti: In a way yes, in a way no. It’s like a departure, recognisably. It’s nice that composers are able to do other sorts of things, and Rihm can write any sort of music he wants, he has this chameleon-like ability. But there’s something underlying which makes it Rihm, something that runs through the pieces, that is identifiably his music, but he can write different sorts of music. Wolfgang is a very great musician, if you ask him to harmonise something, he’ll do it, and it’ll sound like Rihm.
Is there anything you would like him to do, or do you prefer to be surprised?
Arditti: We won’t stop at 17 world premières – the next is the 13th String Quartet – and certainly don’t want to. When a composer has such a thirst to put music in the form of a quartet or whatever other pieces he may be inspired to write with the quartet and other performers, then we’d be very happy to play it. Never stop at numbers!
Interview: Jonathan Irons