When you set out to go to a concert featuring well-known quartets by Haydn and Beethoven, you might be forgiven for thinking that you know what to expect. With Quatuor Arod you would be wrong. They take well-known pieces and play them as though they have decided to ignore all previous interpretations and to fashion their own.
Take the Haydn (Opus 74 No. 3). It starts with 4 bars of crochets with grace notes, followed by four bars of crochets without grace notes. They aren’t marked staccato but the Arod shortened them to give them more bounce. And to make the point the three upper players bounced on their chairs (not something a cellist can do without an accident). After two bars rest the cellist comes in with a soft ascending arpeggio. On the page it doesn’t look like much but Samy Rachid played it with such delicacy it was as though I had never heard it before. And so it went on; every phrase rethought and reworked to thrilling effect. The second movement was warm and tender, the third had more pace then you would expect from an allegretto, and the fourth was taken at a ferocious speed, the opening forte chords coming across like gunshots against the background of the soft galloping theme.
After the interval came Beethoven’s second Razumovsky Quartet (Opus 59 No. 2). Beethoven was so specific about how he wanted his work played that there were fewer surprises, but the feeling was the same: that nothing was taken for granted, that every phrase had been thought through. I didn’t always like what they did, but I always liked the fact that they did it. Every performance should be a unique event. Part of the thrill of hearing the Arod is how different they are, what risks they take.
Which brings me to what was, for me, the highlight of the programme, Al’Asr by Benjamin Attahir. Written for this quartet, and indeed composed by working with them on it, this is a complex, brilliant piece. The composer is quite clear about the sources of his inspiration and Chris Darwin brilliantly captures these in his programme notes: heat, light, the passage of time, the true meaning of existence. I started by hearing the music through those ideas: I heard the lazy buzzing of flies, I felt the relentless heat of the afternoon sun. But as the work became more complex I became free of those ‘explanations’ and just heard the music: thrilling rhythms, exciting intervals (often jarring semitones), rapidly changing dynamics, intricate forming of patterns between the instruments, sometimes moving in pairs, sometimes in threes, sometimes all together, sometimes each one alone. This is music that stirs you up and leaves you gasping. Despite the intellectual origins of this piece its power is not as a portrayal of the heat of the afternoon nor of the 103rd Surah of the Quran but as sheer music that spoke to those of us lucky enough to be there, without our needing to ‘understand’ it.
There is a lot more to say about Quatuor Arod. They are a joy to watch; they relate well to each other on stage, they look as though they are enjoying themselves. They are technically astonishingly good. In Samy Rashid they have a cellist with a lovely big tone and exquisite phrasing who still manages to blend perfectly with the other players. Two young violinists from the Royal College of Music declared, at the end of the concert, that Quatuor Arod was the best quartet in the world and that the concert had been the best chamber music concert they had ever been to. Some of us worry sometimes about the advanced age of our audience and wonder what the future holds. With quartets like this the future looks a whole lot more assured.