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Ligeti was the most important figure in Hungarian music since the death of Bela Bartok, and his quartets have taken their rightful place in the active repertory. The Budapest-based Keller Quartet pounces on the music's mingled frenzy and stasis with finely controlled gusto, while its ascetic treatment of the Barber Adagio draws that neo-romantic masterpiece closer to Ligeti's sound-world, justifying the unlikely coupling.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

A little over a week ago ECM New Series released a new recording featuring the Keller Quartett, an ensemble with whom they have produced several outstanding recordings of repertoire ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to György Kurtág. The new release offers the two string quartets composed by György Ligeti, the first written between 1953 and 1954 and the second written in early 1968. As a ‘spacer’ between these two pieces, the recording introduces the Molto adagio movement from Samuel Barber’s Opus 11 quartet. [...] Ligeti left Budapest in December of 1956, two months after the Soviet Union had violently quashed the Hungarian Revolution. In the following years he would work with the German experimentalists in Cologne and Darmstadt (such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig). While that work profoundly influenced his appreciation for the significance of sonority, he was determined to find his own “path to the new music” (to borrow a phrase from Anton Webern, in many ways the patron saint of those German experimentalists). Vienna became his base of operations; and he took Austrian citizenship in 1968, the year of his second string quartet.
This quartet is representative of Ligeti’s determination to put the abstractions of his German contemporaries in their proper place. The tempo indications of each of the five movements are in Italian, but with more attention to the use of modifiers than the indicators of speed. [...] One way to approach Ligeti’s attentiveness to this labeling is to consider the journey through its five movements in terms of the modulation of energy levels. Even the ‘calmo’ of the second movement is haunted by the preceding ‘nervoso.’ As a result, the listener becomes aware of an increasing intensity of energy that hits a fever pitch in the fourth movement, after which, in Ligeti’s own words, the music ‘spreads itself out just, just … like a cloud.’ The second quartet thus unfolds (in about the same amount of time as the first) almost as the distillation of a classical tragedy in five acts.
The Keller Quartet was founded in 1987 at the Liszt Conservatory of Music, where Ligeti had once taught. All of its members were students there, but none of them studied under Ligeti. They perform with an acute awareness that dramatic expressiveness is as essential as a solid technical command of all the marks on the score pages. As a result, each of these decidedly different aspects of Ligeti’s approach to chamber music thrives with its own sense of immediacy and its own characteristic rhetoric.
Nevertheless, the pieces are so different that one can appreciate why producer Manfred Eicher felt that some form of separation was in order. That separation was provided by the single Barber movement, the same music he had orchestrated to be performed independently of the other two quartet movements under the title “Adagio for Strings.” I call this Eicher’s decision because the recordings of the two quartets were separated by over four years, during which the membership of the Keller Quartett changed. Thus, in many respects, this recording is as much Eicher’s impressions of Ligeti as those of the performers; and the result makes for a highly informative listening experience for both those familiar with Ligeti’s work and those just beginning to learn about it.
Stephen Smoliar, San Francisco Examiner

Aus den Jahren 2007 und 2011 stammen die Einspielungen, die das ungarische Keller-Quartett im Radio Studio DRS Zürich in die Rillen bannte. In der Zwischenzeit vollzog sich ja ein Wechsel in der Sekundgeige. An die Stelle von János Pilz trat im Ligeti Quartett Nr. 2 die Geigerin Zsófia Környei, die sich klanglich bestens einfügte. Wie die Vierergruppe Görgy Ligetis Streichquartett Nr. 1 (Metamorphoses nocturnes) auslotet, wie intelligent komplizierte Gedanken koordiniert und einander zugespielt werden, gehört in die Etagen hoher Quartettkunst. Welch ein Reichtum an Valeurs und bebender Nervosität wächst aus der Fülle des Themenmaterials. Musikalische Ruhekissen, Stücke zum genussvollen Zurücklehnen, sind Ligetis Quartette fürwahr nicht. Vielmehr Zeugnisse bedingungsloser Rigorosität wie ein Komponist sich den Instrumenten zur Klangerzeugung auszuliefern versteht. In den ungarisch eingefärbten ‚Metamorphoses nocturnes’ verbinden sich motorisch elektrisierende rhythmische Muster, unregelmäßige Metren sowie Anklänge an Bartóks Nachtmusik und treibende Halbtonschritte zu einem Szenario der klangsinnlichen Effekte. Das lässt in den schimmernden Glissando-Harmonien bereits den reifen Ligeti wetterleuchten. Das Keller-Team sorgt für eine aggressiv geformte Klangerzeugung. Wem nach avantgardistischen Nervenkitzel dürstet, ist mit dieser sorgfältig realisierten Einspielung optimal bedient.
Als echtes Ruhekissen erweist sich das Molto adagio aus dem Streichquartett op. 11 von Samuel Barber. Es ging um die Welt, betrauerte in den elektronischen Medien von Hörfunk und Fernsehen musikalisch die fürchterlichen Ereignisse des 11. September – ein wenig Hollywood Glamour atmet dieses viel gespielte Kreation Stück schon. Nur gut, dass die Keller-Leute die zum Höhepunkt sich schraubenden melodischen Schwünge ohne zuckrigen Beigeschmack formen. Da waltet eben der gute musikalische Geschmack. Das natürliche musikalische Empfinden ereignet sich ohne pathetische Aufplusterungen.
Zu einer Achterbahnfahrt von Stimmungen und strukturellen Überraschungen lädt der Magier Ligeti im zweiten Streichquartett. So entpuppt sich in seiner Alchimistenküche der dritte Satz ‚Pizzicato’ als ’…eine imaginäre Maschine die kaputtgeht’ (Ligeti). Das Keller-Quartett bringt das Kunststück fertig, motorische Segmente, pathetische aufgezogene Abschnitte und schwindelerregende Polyrhythmik interpretatorisch souverän zu verzahnen. So entsteht ein fesselndes Szenario von klanglichen Effekten – eine spannungsgeladene Wiedergabe voll suggestiver Magie. Die Interpreten, spieltechnisch in bester Verfassung, liefern den klangvollen Beweis, dass man über jenen Grad an musikalischer Intelligenz verfügt, den man eben braucht, um Werke dieser komplizierten Bauart zum musikalischen Erlebnis werden zu lassen.
Egon Bezold, Der Opernfreund

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.
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 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.
Robert Moon, Audiophile Audition

This incandescent disc documents two iterations of the Budapest-based Keller Quartet: János Pilz plays second violin in György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 and Samule Barber’s Adagio, succeeded by Zsófia Környei in Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2. No matter the personnel, the quartet’s music-making is fierce and engrossing, and the program offers gratifying surprises. Thomas Larson titled a book about the Adagio (officially ‘Motlo adagio’) from Barber’s 1936 String Quartet No. 1 ‘The Saddest Music Ever Written’. In an arrangement for string orchestra, it has become a a generic hymn for public mourning [...] and for some a cozy, tonal reproach to post-common-practice styles. But sandwiched between Ligeti’s quartets and played in a chaste manner, its stepwise meanderings seem less soothing than eerie, inconsolable echoes through time of Marais or Prcell’s laments.
As performed by the Kellers, the icy hiss that opens Ligeti’s Second Quartet (1968) and threads its way through the piece is itself one of the uncanniest sounds you will ever hear. The quartet is bathed in unearthly tones: frantic raps and pizzicati; shredded, scuttling figures; and a dizzying slither into a vacuum-like silence at work’s end. The First Quartet (‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’, 1953-54) dances around a core of baleful near-soundlessness, flirting with the galumping, folk-inflected rhythms of Bartók’s music but ultimately spiraling away from it. A must-have recording.
Marion Lignana-Rosenberg, Time-Out New York

The Budapest-based Keller Quartet divides György Ligeti’s two modernistic String Quartets with the famously retrospective ‘Adagio’ from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet. Ligeti’s quartets are themselves very different: the first has a tearaway frenzy but is traditionally grounded; the second veers into spheres of harmonics that still sound avant-garde 45 years on. Tremendously abrasive, intense performances.
Richard Morrison, The Times

Beiden Besetzungen aber sind jene kristallklare Präzision und das unbedingte Aufeinandergehen zu eigen, ohne die eine derart konzentrierte Musik nach dem Willen ihres Schöpfers überhaupt nicht darstellbar wäre. Wie von einem Atem und einem Gedanken getragen, verkörpert das Ensemble diese Musik (...), gibt ihr so Herzschlag, Puls und Wärme mit auf den Weg.
Stephan Schwarz, Fono Forum

It’s hard to know what to admire most about this remarkable new disc – the bravery of the strange but compelling juxtaposition of repertoire; the technical brilliance of playing; or the profound, considered musicality of the Keller players’ performances. [...] There’s a sense of fantasy and vivid characterisation right from their start of their Ligeti First Quartet (heavily indebted to Bartók), and a glassy purity to their sound that ensures each instrument is heard in individual clarity [...] They rise magnificently to the Second Quartet’s weird, sometimes theatrical demands, too, negotiating Ligeti’s musical jokes with dry wit. [...] The famous Barber Adagio is deliciously jarring in between the two Ligeti quartets, especially in the Keller’s brisk, unsentimental performance, light on vibrato but high on ringing purity. It’s as if they’ve stripped the piece of its mawkishness and returned it to the simple, moving statement that it is. All in all, a disc of revelations
David Kettle, The Strad


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