Whilst Julian Anderson’s first opera Thebans continues to garner critical acclaim at English National Opera, last week saw the world premiere of his Second String Quartet 300 Weihnachtslieder as part of his ongoing time as Composer in Residence at the Wigmore Hall. Performed by its dedicatees, the legendary Arditti Quartet, this bold and vibrant work received a rapturous reception, leading some to wonder whether his opera was a watershed moment.
As the work’s subtitle suggests, Anderson has drawn on a wealth of traditional German Christmas songs. Whilst these melodies rarely rise to the surface of the music, their spirit, their varying and lively contours, and their texts nevertheless leave a strong imprint on its every bar. Perhaps as a response to the formidable capabilities of the Ardittis, the work is Anderson’s most ambitious exploration of unconventional tuning systems to date, drawing much of its character from the rich sonorities of church bells which also underpin his orchestral works Symphony (2003) and Eden (2005).  
The work was commissioned by Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, La Jolla Music Society for SummerFest, Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation. The US premiere takes place in August with the FLUX Quartet and the German premiere by the Arditti Quartet follows later this autumn.
‘ a remarkable, immensely demanding piece. Its sheer richness, range of expression and intensity suggest that perhaps the opera [Thebans] was a musical watershed for the composer, and that achieving it has opened up a whole new range of musical possibilities… [Sound spectra] colour and flavour the music in an indefinable way, adding an elusive dimension to Anderson's fiercely demanding quartet writing.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 16 May 2014
‘The music has a light touch, using non-standard tuning and effects such as “vertical bowing” to create a world of reflections where nothing is quite as it seems. The carols emerge as glimpses of something substantial in a prism of flickering lights; or the echoes of distant bells delicately ringing in the season; or, at the end, a nostalgic epilogue that evaporates into a haze of tremolos, pizzicatos and harmonics. There are seven movements, totalling not much more than a quarter of an hour, so the overall effect is rather fragmentary, but the quartet creates an alluring world of its own. It is getting on for 20 years since the ever expert Arditti Quartet suggested to Anderson that he should write a work for them. They should feel it was worth the wait.’
The Financial Times (Richard Fairman), 18 May 2014