Classical CD Reviews

LIGETI: String Quartets = String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; BARBER: Adagio – Keller Quartet – ECM New Series

Hungarian twentieth century master Gyorgy Ligeti’s two string quartets are given performances by the Keller Quartet that are worthy of their verve and significance.

Published on August 1, 2013

LIGETI: String Quartets = String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; BARBER: Adagio – Keller Quartet – ECM New Series B0018363-02,  50:52, *****:

This is a cleverly-programmed CD that sandwiches the slow movement of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet (1936) – the orchestral version of which is the famous Adagio for Strings – with two quartets of Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), the Hungarian avant-garde composer. Taken as a whole, the disc represents how music in the first half of the twentieth century represents a jagged trajectory around the struggle between tonality and atonality.

As program annotator Paul Griffiths – who wrote a biography of Ligeti – points out, the Barber could have been written, and accepted fifty years earlier than its date of composition (1936). Ligeti’s First Quartet, Metamorhposes nocturnes (1953-4) would not (and probably could not) be performed until 1958 because of its atonal difficulty for performers and audiences, disapproval by the communistic Hungarian government and because the composer fled Budapest in the 1956 uprising. By 1958, only four years after its conception, Ligeti put it aside, and called it a ‘prehistoric work’ because he had musically progressed far beyond it. No one heard it again until 1976. But, as Griffiths points out, its “busy polyphony, it’s abundance of new colours, and dissatisfaction with received information” (his Hungarian folk-ethnic roots) took Ligeti home, whether he admitted it or not.

From the very opening of the upward rising chords, we see the footprints of Bartok: the Quartet No. 6 (1939), the second movement. But when the violins do a downward slide, we know this is Ligeti. Regardless of its pedigree, this is an accomplished and exciting work, an intriguing and at times beautiful integration of disguised Hungarian folk material, humor, abrupt changes of mood, and experimental twentieth century language. It reminds me of the recently reviewed Penderecki Third String Quartet, an expert integration of tonal and atonal techniques. The biggest indication that the work is important is the several recordings available, and the Keller Quartet’s plays it with a brilliance that exclaims its magnificence.

String Quartet No. 2 (1968) is in five movements – a reverential reference to Bartok’s Quartets Nos. 4 and 5. Its abrupt musical and emotional changes link it to the First Quartet. The first movement (Allegro Nervoso) begins with a mood of skittish and brittle apprehension contrasted by an uneasy calm, which is periodically broken by traumatic outbursts. Mechanistically precise pizzicatos follow, hard and soft, “like a machine that breaks down,” as Ligeti describes it, or as Griffiths pictures it, “one of Ligeti’s misbehaving clocks.” The condensed fourth movement is full of avant-garde techniques, but it quietly gives way to neo-Impressionistic garb – as clouds move across the sky (a metaphor Ligeti uses), penetrated by shards of sunlight. The Second String Quartet represents the composer’s journey (sometimes reluctantly) towards a combined use of his Hungarian folk roots, avant-garde techniques and tonality that he continued in his later compositions (e.g. Melodien for orchestra (1971) and San Francisco Polyphony for orchestra (1975).  Throughout its 21-minute length, this quartet never loses its tension, imaginative sounds, and intellectual fascination.

Although the inclusion of the Barber serves as an aural palette cleanser, and the Keller Quartet’s use of minimal vibrato brings it into alignment with Ligeti’s modernity,  I’m unconvinced that it adds much to the CD other than extending its already short length.

Anyone unfamiliar with Ligeti’s two quartets can experience their mastery in these superb performances by the Keller Quartet.

—Robert Moon

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