Zehetmair Quartett: Béla Bartók/Paul Hindemith (ECM New Series 1874)


Zehetmair Quartett
Béla Bartók/Paul Hindemith

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Kuba Jakowicz violin
Ruth Killius viola
Ursula Smith violoncello
Recorded June 2006, Kulturbühne AmBach, Götzis
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The sound of the Zehetmair Quartet is hard to miss. Playing from memory, this intensely talented ensemble brings a fiery passion to everything that receives its bows. Following up their groundbreaking recordings of Schumann and Hartmann/Bartók, Zehetmair and company return in the latter vein, pairing the Hungarian’s Fifth (1934) with Paul Hindemith’s Fourth (1921).

Bartók’s writing is as colorful as it is a joy to play, and from the first Allegro even the new listener will note the freshness of the territory. So begins a flowing series of vignettes, of which the slinking Adagio is the most enigmatic departure from the density of its surroundings, as if the ghost of the first were whispering in our ears. The Scherzo proves fertile ground for the composer, a gesture par excellence that stakes a claim in the brain. Promises are fulfilled in chains, as Bartók seems to favor a tight and, in Zehetmair’s words, “functional” approach. The Finale sets us swooning, working in knit clusters made all the more intriguing by the flawless playing.

Hindemith’s quartet, also in five movements, stresses a complimentary ability at the slow and inward looking. The Fugato through which it breathes into life is a perfect example of his ability to do for introspection movements what Bartók does for the extro, forging an idiosyncratic lyricism that constantly reforms itself. The Debussy-like charm of the third movement touches the heart, lulling us via a cello-heavy passage into the fanciful Rondo that leaves us breathless.

Invigorating, committed, superb. No lesser adjectives will suffice.

Bartók: 44 Duos for Two Violins (ECM New Series 1729)



Béla Bartók
44 Duos for Two Violins

András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Recorded October 1999 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Béla Bartók originally wrote his 44 Duos for Two Violins in the early 1930s at the behest of Erich Doflein, a Freiburg music instructor looking for a set of pieces both didactic and distinctly modern. Yet it is clear that the composer never intended at least some of these exercises to remain off the stage. András Keller and János Pilz of the widely celebrated Keller Quartett show us that neither were they meant to remain on the page, for in these benchmark performances they have enlivened the music with something it inherently possesses: a need to dance. That being said, and with the wealth of Eastern European sources bleeding through at nearly every stroke, folk music is not merely the means to Bartók’s message. A desire to look beyond this easy association is perhaps what lies behind the musicians’ decision to play the pieces out of sequence (Bartók had originally arranged them in order of increasing difficulty). In doing so, they focus our attention on the musicality of what is at hand.

From the verdant strains of “Erdély Tánc” (Transylvanian Song) one will hear how this music has influenced composers as diverse as Michael Galasso, Henryk Górecki, and Stephen Hartke, to name but a few. This song is like a tree of its own, every draw of the bow a newly articulated vein, and all that follows a book of its pressed leaves. Much of the work is pensive and exploratory, at once within and without. Some movements are all the more engaging for their brevity, like the uplifting and, dare I say, groovy “Párnás Tánc” (Cushion Dance), not to mention the trembling beauties of “Ujévköszöntö II” (New Year’s Greeting II), “Tót Nóta II” (Slovak Song II), and the “Menuetto.” The latter’s full double stops and swaying leads speak to the robustness of heart so characteristic of Bartók. From the sinewy leaps and bounds of “Szunyogtánc” (Mosquito Dance) to the meditations of “Mese” (Fairy Tale), he employs subtle dissonances that transmogrify seemingly straightforward gestures into more complex acts of implication. Others, like “Lakodalmas” (Wedding Song), cast simple shafts of light through a cracked attic wall, illuminating that same book of leaves into which every vignette is placed. “Szól A Duda” (Bagpipes) is one of the most stunning in the collection, its grammar so distinct that it is played twice in this recording. Keller and Pilz also underscore the percussive aspects of “Pizzicato” and “Arab Dal” (Arabian Song), the latter another standout performance in an already vivacious program. They add the most depth, however, to the more ponderous moments therein. Notable examples of this can be found in “Oláh Nóta” (Romanian Song) and “Bánkódás” (Sorrow).

While the liner notes give us no explanation regarding the program’s complementary encores, one can trace them back to the same cache of folk influences. One might also have added, if anything, the comparable duo sonatas of Prokofiev or, for that matter, Górecki, but instead we find two kindred spirits whose interest in deepening the essence of the form was as fleeting as the intensity with which they engaged it. György Ligeti’s Ballad and Dance after a Romanian folk song are two links in an otherwise obscured chain. The wavering cries of the first and the awakening of the second show us two sides of the same celestial body and wrap us in a cloak of night so intimate that the duo version of Ligatura – Message to Frances-Marie op. 31b by György Kurtág that closes reads like an orchestra whose voice strains to be heard over vast distances yet whose body has already rotted by the time that voice reaches us.

The rich sonority of these instruments and the music flowing through them moves like a blade across greased leather, and under the watchful ear of engineer Peter Laenger the recording inhabits a fine balance between capture and deference. The brilliance of this music is its ability to emote in lieu of euphemistic storytelling, getting to what Edward Gordon Craig would call “the spirit of the thing,” curling its fingers around something essential the more illusory those fingers become.

Zehetmair Quartett: Hartmann/Bartók (ECM New Series 1727)


Zehetmair Quartett
Karl Amadeus Hartmann/Béla Bartók

Zehetmair Quartett
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Ulf Schneider violin
Ruth Killius viola
Françoise Groben cello
Recorded November 1999, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Violinist Thomas Zehetmair made headlines when he debuted his quartet in what stands to be a reference recording for years to come. The two pieces featured on this disc, one from Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) and the other from Béla Bartók (1881-1945), date from the interwar years, during which time ravages of a bloody past and intimations of an even more tragic future sat side by side. In this respect, the string quartet represents what Hermann Conon in his liner essay describes as a “microsocial sphere in which human beings can learn to coexist harmoniously.” Hartmann was inspired by Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet (1928) when writing his first (1933). The two are linked here in temporal spirit to form a tightly knit program from one of the genre’s most talented configurations.

Hartmann draws into his neglected masterpiece with a mournful viola, which is then lifted ever so slightly by cello. These pass through a cluster of harmonics, as if traversing a portal, into a world of structural contrasts that foreshadow those of Górecki’s works for the medium some six decades later. The Zehetmair Quartet carefully measures every tension and release, as in the avian calls of the second movement, marked con sordino (that is, played with mutes). The nervous energy of the final is funneled into robust violins as they scale beyond Bartók into their own airspace. This is a quartet that demands not only to be heard, but also to be seen.

The Bartók itself plays out like a game of leapfrog, such that each instrument is always engaged with another. Through a spidery forest of glissandi, pizzicati, dynamic contrasts, and tinny bowings, we find ourselves in a likeminded atmospheric haven at its center. The famous Allegretto pizzicato introduces us to a Bartókian staple, given all the room it needs to soar. The frenetic dance at the close works off a tight rhythm section in the lower strings into dense fortissimo thickets of dissonant bliss.

This recording warrants nothing but highest praise on all counts and furthers ECM’s commitment to the very best in string quartet performance and composition. What a journey it continues to be.

Kim Kashkashian: Bartók/Eötvös/Kurtág (ECM New Series 1711)


Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian viola
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded January and July 1999, Musiekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann and Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The viola has long been one of my most beloved instruments. I see it less as a “neglected” presence in the string world and more as a quiet supporter whose ubiquitous presence has simply been taken for granted. In all this time, it has never been compromised, and for that I adore it. Nearly all of my adoration can be attributed to one musician: Kim Kashkashian. For this all-Hungarian program, the instrument’s most committed proponent raises the bar on a standard work in the literature and sets another for two others.

Of the first, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, I can say that in Kashkashian’s firm grasp it falls with the sweetness of rain onto drought-ridden land. The concerto was written between July and August of 1945 and never finished, due to the composer’s death just one month later. Here, the musicians use Tibor Serly’s standard completed score along with some adjustments of their own. After a robust introduction from the viola, the 14-minute Moderato comes to life like an afterthought that was always meant to be. The viola is such a profound presence in this piece that at points one almost forgets the orchestra is even there. Rather than see this dynamic as a distraction, I chalk it to the orchestra’s ability (both in the playing and the writing) to infuse the soloist’s every move. Pizzicati crumble off like debris as discernible themes come and go through a fractured lens that opens our eyes to the pastoral, openhearted exchange of the second movement. Though hardly a third in length of the first movement, it plies our scales of judgment with as much moral weight. The third movement, marked Allegro Vivace, bursts almost immediately into the final dance. Like the rest of the concerto, it is so melodically confident that it could easily hold its own as a solo piece. What the orchestra provides is a tonal palette upon which the viola’s many colors may rest.

Replica for Viola and Orchestra was written in 1998 for Kashkashian by this recording’s conductor, Peter Eötvös. Regardless of what its intended replication is, the viola and orchestra are always sketching one another: the former linearly like smudged charcoal and the latter in bold yet multifarious brushstrokes dripping with excess paint. The puddle that collects on the floor beneath the easel is its own replica, more than a mere remnant of the creative process. Throughout this single-movement piece, we are never sure of where we are, only that we are comfortable being there. It is music to which we may open our ears without fear of harm.

György Kurtág’s Movement for Viola and Orchestra (1953/54) is the lone survivor of an abandoned early concerto and a welcome change of pace from, if no less fragmentary than, the miniatures that dot much of his other label representations. Distant timpani and swells of brass throw wide the curtains of its keen melodic stage. Also in one movement, its terse balance is the result of astute composing adorned with virtuosic viola writing and not a few demanding moments. Through every spiral we hear the revelry of composer and performer alike, plucked like so much fruit in the orchestra’s final pizzicato.

While a handful of fine recordings of the Bartók certainly exist (of which Hong-Mei Xiao’s superb twofer on Naxos is a personal favorite for comparison), Kashkashian’s brings something untouchable to bear upon this masterwork. To the others she imparts a fresh and mounting vitality. She plays with fortitude yet also with such grace that we find ourselves stunned in the middle. The crisp recording and all-around pellucid musicianship only strengthen her case. Hers is neither the delicate chiseling of the fine woodworker nor the casual scraping of the whittler. Rather, it is the rough-hewn grace of the ice sculptor. And like our breaths that cloud in the air as we watch her at work, the music fades all too soon.

Alternate cover (?)