Keller Quartett: Ligeti String Quartets / Barber Adagio (ECM New Series 2197)

Ligeti Barber

Keller Quartett
Ligeti String Quartets / Barber Adagio

András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zsófia Környei violin (on String Quartet No. 2)
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó violoncello
Recorded June 2007 and October 2011 (String Quartet No. 2), Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“How times have changed,” notes Paul Griffiths in his liner text to this album of string quartets by György Ligeti (1923-2006) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981). “How a recording can change them.” Indeed, at the bows of the Keller Quartett, the capabilities of two violins, one viola, and a cello are intensely magnified by performance and composition in equal measure.

Keller Quartett

Ligeti’s single-movement String Quartet No. 1 (1953/54) takes the title Métamorphoses nocturnes. It opens the program with a DNA helix, from which a single aberrant rung breaks free as a model for the others. The Kellers handle such structural changes with graceful science as warped dances and dizzying draws stoke the embers of continuity from beginning to end. Pizzicati become tactile pressure points, signs that the titular metamorphoses take place in those interims where dreams expand into days’ worth of experience yet take up only a sweep of the second hand. Darker textures at the center of this quartet prefigure Henryk Górecki’s own by decades, while the unforgettable slap pizzicato from cello marks the path with fortitude. The sheer variety of textures is beguiling enough. That Ligeti is able to combine them so organically takes a depth of attention of which few are possessed. A flock of harmonic glissandi toward the end elicit some of the most atmospheric writing for the medium, lasting only as long as the thought to include them before the cello snakes into affirmation and quiet recoil.

The undefeated Adagio from Barber’s opus 11 String Quartet (1935/36) is a chromatic dream come true. Needing no introduction, it nonetheless feels introduced here by the Keller touch. Tasteful, selective applications of vibrato allow for smooth textures to arise, especially in the second violin and viola. Furthermore, the musicians back off at the piece’s climax, thus rendering it less insistent, more of a blossoming than a cutting through, and setting up rawness in the cello-heavy afterglow. It’s somewhat regrettable that the rest of the quartet should be so often ignored, and the missed opportunity to correct this tendency here is only somewhat perplexing, for full inclusion might also have undermined the intimate compactness of the disc, which if pushed to a double could lose its hold on the listener (I would argue for the opposite). Either way, Barber’s contrapuntal beauties are vibrant and secure in this unique Ligeti sandwich.

Second violinist Zsófia Környei replaces János Pilz for Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, which over the course of five movements proves itself to be microscopically bonded beneath a seemingly fragmented surface. Where the mood is slow and sustained, the feeling is of viscous substance from which arise globules that never quite attain autonomy. The mostly pizzicato center forges dawn from dusk, welcoming ephemeral bow contacts in latent purchase. The final Allegro, by contrast, orients itself by a language most akin to cinema. As if in a credit roll, arpeggios and peripheral utterances sweep themselves into recession, leaving only a trail of shadows for us to follow.

Then again, the invitation to follow might itself be an illusion born of the listening process, which can never repeat itself exactly as before. And so, not only can a recording change the times; it can record change itself.

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