|György Ligeti’s two string quartets come from very different times in his creative life. The First (subtitled “Métamorphoses Nocturnes”) dates from 1953–54, and is one of the works he wrote “for the drawer” in Hungary before his escape in 1956, assuming it would never be performed. The 1968 Second was written in the full flower of the composer’s self-reinvention as a leader of the western European avant-garde. As a result, the tone of the two is markedly different. The First definitely shows the influence of Bartók in its harmonic, motivic, and rhythmic materials, but its wit is not so much sardonic as drifting into the realm of the absurd, with its sequence of sudden shifts of mood, its embrace of momentary kitsch gestures, and its refusal to follow a “logical” formal course. The Second is far more abstract, an essay in far purer “sound-relationships,” whether they be slowly drifting harmonic textures (for example, Ligeti’s use of quarter-tones as a means of pacing extremely slow contrapuntal glissandos), or complex polyrhythms that are derived from the experiment of his work for 100 metronomes, the Poème symphonique. Each work feels to me like something of a sketch for other contemporaneous works that were ultimately more successful—the 1953 Musica ricercarta for piano (which Ligeti has rearranged and dipped into repeatedly for other works), and the Kammerkonzert of 1970. At the same time, it’s clear that both quartets are from the pen of the same master; Ligeti’s interest in issues of sound, texture, new approaches to harmony, and formal rupture are explored more and less conservatively in the course of the works.
The Artemis Quartet plays beautifully, and their particular gift is a timbral range that projects a wide spectrum of colors onto the different sections of the works. This in turn gives them interpretive leeway they exploit handsomely. I still have two concerns about this disc, though. The first deals with a seemingly trivial matter, namely the pauses between movements. But because Ligeti is actually quite specific about these timings, it takes on more importance than usual. From the first to the second quartets, the Artemis places 30 seconds of silence at the end of the First; then, following Ligeti’s instructions faithfully, they add 10 seconds to the start of the next. Since the score of the First simply shows a lunga fermata over the final double bar, this seems extreme. You can start to wonder if something’s wrong, or if there’s a Cageian intervention occurring. Further, while the quartet is careful to observe the measured silences at the beginning and endings of the Second’s movements, there’s only a passing mention to this in the booklet notes, and when combined with the huge gap between the two pieces, one starts to feel confused by all the silence.
The second reason for concern is that not only is the disc a little short, but this repertoire is beautifully covered already by the Arditti Quartet in the Sony portion of the Ligeti Edition (SK 62306). The pesky pause issue is better resolved here; in addition, the buyer gets three other pieces: a brief duo from 1982 for violin and cello, and two pieces from Ligeti’s early 1950s Hungarian period, a Ballad and Dance for two violins, and an Andante and Allegretto for string quartet. The performances are stunning, maybe a shade edgier than those of the Artemis, but still authoritative.
The upshot is that, while this new Virgin disc is a well-recorded and performed addition to the Ligeti repertoire, I don’t think its virtues supplant those of the Arditti on Sony, which still stands as my standard. FANFARE