Heard in isolation, the performance of Janacek's First String Quartet (the 'Kreutzer Sonata') that opened this concert might have been mystifying. The Arditti Quartet atomised the score into melodic, rhythmic and sonic segments then blurted them in plain-spoken outbursts. There was none of the usual lushness or folksiness that most quartets bring to Janacek. The point was to treat the Kreutzer as fierce experimentalism which worked and didn't. Some melodies were too stripped of beauty to communicate. But as a way of exposing how radical Janacek's music sounds today, let alone 90 years ago when it was new, this show was revelatory.
Xenakis's 1978 string trio Ikhoor sounded mercurial, bouncy and folksy. Xenakis's trademark buzzing glissandi and squelchy noises in the 1983 string quartet Tetras made the Queen's Hall audience chuckle; only the finest musicians could deliver this fearsomely esoteric music with such a light touch.
After the interval we heard Nancarrow's two string quartets and transcriptions by Paul Usher of two of his player-piano studies. The First Quartet is fairly conventional, with jazzy, frenetic outer movements and a slow, soulful viola elegy in between - it was deemed unplayable in the 1940s, but the Ardittis revealed it as no more outlandish than Bartok's quartet writing, or indeed Janacek's. The study transcriptions and the Third Quartet are oddities, a kind of re-humanised machine music. The wobbly, kinetic energy was transfixing, but the bizarreness of the player-piano was lost.