The great Artur Schnabel once settled an argument with another pianist about which of them was the favorite of intellectuals by joking that the second halves of his programs were "as boring as the first."
Schnabel was never boring, of course. Of the pianists of his generation, only he was able to make the most abstruse, abstract music consistently interesting.
Something on the same order could be said about the Arditti String Quartet, which performed last night in the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
What other quartet would have the chutzpah to begin a program with Bartok's demanding String Quartet No. 5 and follow it with three contemporary works, all of which were written in the last eight years and all of which make considerable demands upon the ear? No quartet with a similarly demanding repertory comes to mind, and no quartet (in this listener's experience) makes such a program so interesting.
That is not to say that the Ardittis -- violinists Irvine Arditti and David Alberman, violist Gath Knox and cellist Rohan de Saram -- were able to convince a listener that he wanted to hear every work again. Danish composer Bent Sorensen's "Angel's Music" (1988) for example, seemed only an exercise in how a composer can use mutes on stringed instruments to create a web of delicate, fluttering sounds.
"Autumn Rhythms" (1985) by the young American composer Jay Alan Yim seemed more interesting -- though almost equally hard to get a handle on -- because of some beautiful melodies for viola and cello in its densely argued textures and because of an extraordinarily exciting cadenza for the violins.
The important thing is that the Ardittis play so well -- with such intensity, expertise and conviction -- that they never permit a listener's attention to lag. And when they play music that repays such efforts, sparks fly.
Such was the case in the Bartok work, which received one of the best performances this listener has ever heard, and in Iannis Xenakis' "Tetras" (1983).
"Tetras" is an amazing exercise in virtuosity. There is no musical line as such, only throbbing, shifting, sliding and wildly careening masses of sound. The composer asks his string players to work against traditional ideas of musical beauty and instead to produce sputterings that suggest the sounds of acute gastrointestinal distress.
This is a work of enormous energy and wit. It is hard to imagine another string quartet that could have played it with such pinpoint accuracy and hair-raising excitement.