|Having released several discs featuring his music, ECM have played a major role in the in the recent buzz surrounding the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. This disc of his three string quartets--all key works in the composer's oeuvre--by the outstanding Keller Quartet may well be the finest of all these recordings.
The String Quartet, opus 1, was written in 1959, when Kurtág was 33. (It is perhaps a sign of the composer's lack of conventional self-confidence that none of his previous works had merited an opus number.) Written in six movements, it is composed in a language that is very obviously derived from Bartók and Webern, though even here (unlike, say, in the earlier Viola Concerto) Kurtág is clearly his own composer. The first movement is a brief, ambivalent exposition, the second plays with vigorous ostinati and the third is almost a conventional scherzo (though with slower passages interrupting). The fourth movement is perhaps a negation of the third: it is a slow movement with vigorous outbursts fragmenting the flow; while the fifth movement mirrors the second in its ostinato writing. The slow finale takes the material of the opening but extends it to more than four times the length of the first movement.
If the String Quartet was an assured debut, the Twelve Microludes, opus 13, written in 1977 and 1978, demonstrate how much Kurtág was to grow as a composer in the next two decades. Even more miniaturised than the Quartet (its twelve movements last a mere ten minutes), it also contains a much greater variety of expression. The music includes several chorale-like movements and some that play with ostinati as in the Quartet, but the heart of the work is surely the fifth movement, whose haunting folk-like melody is heard as from afar, garlanded by fragmentary motifs on the other instruments.
Officium breve, opus 28, is an instrumental requiem for the Hungarian composer Andre Szervánszky, written in 1988 and 1989. The work is in fifteen movements--which play without a break--and exhibits something of a collage form. The two linchpins of the work are an incomplete quotation from Szervánszky's Serenade for Strings and the remarkable canon that ends Webern's Second Cantata (a transcription for string quartet of which is the tenth movement of the quartet). Two movements, the third and the twelfth, both based on the Szervánszky quote, are transcribed directly from Szervánszky homages in the piano collection Játékok. The work ends with ferociously dissonant varations on the Szervánszky quote that lead directly into the final movement, which is nothing more than that quote itself. This luminously tonal, Romantic music provides a sudden peripeteia, and sheds unexpected new light on what had come before.
The disc also includes two miniatures. Aus der Ferne III, a homage to Paul Sacher on his 90th birthday, has appeared in a number of versions (two violins, piano four-hands) before this string quartet version. The Answered Unanswered Question (Homage-Message à Frances-Marie) is heard twice on this disc. Commemorating Frances-Marie Uitti and her bizarre double-bowing cello technique, this brief work, for two violins, two cellos and celesta, features the composer playing the celesta part.
Both Officium breve and the Twelve Microludes strike me as amongst the finest of post-war quartets, and they deserve the strongest possible advocacy. Happily, the playing of the Keller Quartet is quite outstanding, and gets to the heart of the music in a way that the rival version from the Arditti Quartet cannot match. Even with the rather short (less than 50 minutes) playing time, this is an essential recording for anyone interested in postwar music.