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The Keller Quartett’s association with ECM has yielded outstanding recordings, among them Bach’s Art of the Fugue, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15 and works by the ensemble’s mentor, György Kurtág. This newest release is another remarkable addition to the Budapest-based group’s discography; the album bridges musical worlds in a way that would have been difficult to imagine just a few decades ago, as it juxtaposes works by two seeming antipodes of 20th-century music: American romanticist Samuel Barber (1910-81) and post-war Hungarian modernist György Ligeti (1923-2006).

Ligeti’s two string quartets are bracing creations of the 1950s and ’60s that – like the quartets of his great precursor, Bartók – are as mysterious as they are earthy. Between these two works appears the slow movement from Barber’s String Quartet of 1936, a slice of tonal terra firma between the restlessly shifting, even dizzying sounds of the Ligeti. Barber later orchestrated this slow movement, turning it into his famous Adagio for Strings – a work that, after its premiere by Toscanini in 1938, would serve as musical catharsis for occasions of great mourning. The aesthetic distance between Barber and Ligeti is compressed not only by the passing of time but by the keen interpretive perceptiveness of the Keller Quartett. The group finds common contours in these pieces, spirits that are kindred. Here, the Ligeti has an expressiveness that is moving; the Barber, played with sparing vibrato, sounds strangely unfamiliar, ghostly, unsettling.

The Keller Quartett made its recording of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 Métamorphoses nocturnes in 2007 on the first anniversary of the composer’s death – Hungary’s foremost string quartet paying tribute to the key innovator of modern Hungarian music. The New York Times has lauded the group’s way with its countryman’s music, singling out “sonic effects that the Keller Quartett illuminated with panache.” The 2011 recording of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2 documents a change in the lineup of violinist András Keller’s ensemble, with Zsófia Környei, widely considered one of the top instrumentalists of her generation, replacing long-serving Keller Quartett member János Pilz as second violinist. Both Ligeti quartets and the Barber Adagio were recorded at Radiostudio DRS in Zurich.

The CD booklet for this album includes an insightful essay by Paul Griffiths. Underscoring the startling juxtaposition of the Ligeti and the Barber, he points out that the Romantic tradition was home for Barber, and home was for him a place to cherish. For Ligeti – whose father and brother were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and whose hometown of Budapest was the scene of a Soviet crackdown in 1956, the year he escaped to the West – “home was a place to leave,” whether that home was geographical or musical. Griffiths writes:

“Ligeti’s distrust or uncertainty, where homes are concerned, he revealed in his attitudes to his own early work, even as those attitudes changed. One relic of his Hungarian-Bartókian-ethnographical past was his string quartet Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953-54), which he took with him when he left Budapest toward the end of 1956, and which had a performance in Vienna a year and a half later… What the Keller Quartett’s performance demonstrates is that this ‘prehistoric’ work (the composer’s own term) is already fully Ligetian in its busy polyphony, its abundance of new colors and its dissatisfaction with received information, even – or especially – the information it was so skillfully incorporating from Hungarian sources, rustic and learned.”

By the time Ligeti wrote his Second String Quartet in early 1968, he felt the need to “redefine” the form, which he did by redefining its sound:

“In particular, harmonics are no longer exceptional; indeed, they are almost the rule, creating a music that glistens. The effort to produce those harmonics, at the level of intonational clarity the piece demands, explains the long gap before the first performance, which the LaSalle Quartet, then the leading exponents of the quartets of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, gave in Baden-Baden on Dec. 14, 1969. Almost half a century later, the work is as near as any quartet of its period to being part of the repertory, which means not only that its technical difficulties have been absorbed but also that it can profit from a performance that, as this one does, brings fresh and keenly expressive life to its sounds, with whistling harmonics of mystery, pain or hilarity and marvelous effects of bending intonation when one instrument slides past another.”

Griffiths goes on to describe the “urgency of gesture” in the Keller Quartett’s performances on this recording, an urgency that can make Barber’s music – though seemingly anachronistic at the time he composed it – sound as timeless, and as restless, as that of Ligeti: “The Barber, needless to say, is a tonal composition, one whose means would have been fully understood half a century before the piece was written. By 1936, though, those means had lost their universality, and the Keller Quartett’s performance speaks of that loss. The almost non-vibrato entry of the first violin removes any clothing of confidence: This is an instrument coming naked into the world, and showing, when increasing its vibration, only a flickering of insecurity. Its steps are tentative. They also lead nowhere, in a lodge-less world, ever returning and ever retracing. When the high point is reached, by all four instruments, it is the discovery of light but of a light that cannot be seen, because we are forced to tighten our eyes against it. And the final chord is more expiration than arrival, more exhaustion than homecoming.”

The Keller Quartett was founded in 1987 in Budapest at the Liszt Conservatory of Music, where its members studied with Sandór Devich, András Mihály and György Kurtág. All three of these distinguished professors remain mentors, and Kurtág continues to compose music for the quartet. From the outset, the quartet distinguished itself with superlative playing, charismatic and dynamic performances, and encounters with composers and musicians of many genres. Its Bach/Kurtág program, in which parts of Bach’s Art of the Fugue are intertwined with works by Kurtág, is illustrative of its adventurous repertoire. The Keller Quartett’s 1996 recording of Bartok’s six string quartets received much international acclaim and prizes, including the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and the Cannes Classical Award. The Keller Quartett also won the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik in 1997 for its Kurtág album, Musik für Streichinstrumente, which initiated the group's association with ECM. Following an insightful recording of the Art of the Fugue – “an unforgettable experience” (The Independent) and one “in which everything has been thought out afresh, every part reconsidered for its relationship to the whole” (Fanfare) – Keller Quartett violinists András Keller and János Pilz turned their attention to Bartók’s Duos for two violins, with their ECM New Series recording of the set meeting with international praise. The Keller Quartett is also heard on ECM-recordings with music by Alexander Knaifel, as well as on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15 and Schnittke’s Piano Quintet with pianist Alexei Lubimov.

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