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.
Before addressing this juxtaposition it is necessary to consider the context into which this highly familiar music by Barber has been thrust. Considered in succession, the two Ligeti quartets constitute a major shift in thinking. The first was composed during his tenure as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint, and analysis at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, a position he had secured due, in part, to a recommendation by Zoltán Kodály. One way to approach the first quartet is as a summa on the achievements of Kodály’s former colleague, Béla Bartók, accounting for both the latter’s ethnomusicological research with Kodály and the ways in which that research led to Bartók’s unique approach to melodic lines, harmonies, and rhetoric. It would not be unfair to say that Bartók’s spirit breathes through every note that Ligeti set to paper while working on this quartet, resulting in a rich retrospective neatly packaged into a single uninterrupted movement lasting (on this recording) about 22 minutes.
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. In the first movement that modifier is the adjective “nervoso,” followed by “calmo” for the second movement. By the third movement the entire tempo indication is a modifying phrase, “Come un meccanismo di precisione,” followed by a barrage of three strong adjectives for the fourth movement, “furioso, burtale, tumultuoso.” Things then settle down in the final movement, whose modifiers are “delicatezza” and “mild.”
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.