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Keller Quartett: Ligeti String Quartets / Barber Adagio

img  Tobias Fischer

Presented in the right context, as Stanley Kubrick's 2001 proved, the music of György Ligeti was capable of stirring powerful sentiments. And yet, for most of his life, Ligeti was admired not so much for his emotive talent, but his beautiful mind, an intellect so lucid and precise it would baffle the European avantgarde with its razorsharp analyses. For his compatriots of the Keller Quartett, meanwhile, that habitually passed-down wisdom is half the story at best.

Their rendition of Ligeti's two string quartets – his entire oeuvre for the genre, although conceptual sketches for two follow-ups were discovered later - depicts the Hungarian composer at quintessential turning points in his career. The first, written just months before his escape to Germany, is a dizzyingly effective one-movement tour de force of thematic development and condensed writing, a single melodic shape being squeezed through seventeen different musical scenes ranging from sad laments to scherzo-like dance episodes, from meditative stillness to near-kitch in a mesmerising string of masterful, magical transformations. Whereas traditional motivic work still holds this spectacular, and unjustly slighted work, firmly together, the second quartet is marked by a continuum of dualities between harsh and tender, quiet and loud, fast and slow, textural and thematic, sound and silence. Obsessed with microtonal movements within an otherwise static fabric and microscopic phase shifts in a seemingly constant metrum, the piece sees Ligeti at his experimental and creative acme – an assessment shared by the artist himself, who considered it as a summum opus of his ideals at the time.

The second string quartet has been the subject of many theoretical papers, and yet none of them has managed to explain away the melancholic ("delicate", as the performance instructions would have it) finale: Within two minutes of the finish line, a short sequence of wistful nostalgia appears from the clouds, expands, then fades away again. In the interpretation of the Kellers, the passage retains its mystery. And yet, its inclusion may have been motivated by the same, seemingly trivial reason that seems to be at the heart of their choice, on this disc, of linking the two Ligeti quartets with Samuel Barber's famous adagio, a tonal piece outwardly written on a different planet: It simply sounds great right there.

Paul Griffiths, in his excellent liner notes, offers plenty of argumentative ammunition as to why it does. And yet, even forever analytical Ligeti, who was a great fan of improvisation and loved the music of Thelonious Monk, would have accepted that the intellect could only go so far in the arts. It was his passion for music which fueled his beautiful mind – never the other way round.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: ECM Records