György Ligeti (1923-2006)
String Quartet No 1 ‘métamorphoses nocturnes’
String Quartet No 2
Andante and Allegretto for String Quartet
rec. 2022, Arsenal Cité musicale-Metz, France
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Pentatone PTC5187061 
The Hungarian composer, Ligeti, was always the joker in the modernism pack, a quality which led to him perhaps not being taken fully seriously by that often over earnest bunch of composers, musicians and musicologists. Thankfully, as a new generation of performers bring their insights to his scores, his full and deserved status is beginning to emerge. He is much more than the bloke from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The startling originality of his sound world is seen as part of a deep, questing musical personality rather than gimmickry. Most surprisingly of all, he can now be heard as extending and developing the great tradition of classical music rather mocking it or seeking its destruction. The joker, it turns out, wrote music of heart as well as head and his innovations, rather than ageing badly, provide doors through which the novice listener can pass and in doing so grasp how well his music captures the zeitgeist of our age. Nowhere is all of this more neatly captured than in Ligeti’s brace of string quartets.
There are, sadly, those listeners for whom Bartók remains the unacceptable face of the moment when classical music broke faith with the average listener. For others, such as myself, he is the heir of Brahms, Richard Strauss and ultimately, of Beethoven and Haydn. The spirit of Bartók hovers around all three Ligeti works that make up this coruscating new album by the Diotima Quartet. If Bartók honoured his musical forebears not by slavish imitations but by following through on the implications of the paths they signposted then Ligeti similarly honours his great Hungarian ancestor. The influence of Bartók is most clearly audible in the first quartet’s nocturnal musings but the thread is palpable even in the most extravagant antics of the second. It is true that the latter work still sounds like it was beamed down from another galaxy and yet it still seems oddly familiar and even more appropriate to the strange world of 2023 than to the time in which it was written.
Humour in music has always had a tendency to diminish a composer’s reputation as merely comic and yet, as those two great exponents of musical wit, Haydn and Beethoven demonstrate, sarcasm, irony and just plain old clowning are necessary handmaidens of the sublime. Ligeti’s wit operates at a similar level and the true spirit of the Haydn quartets, albeit in modern dress, hovers benignly over these pieces. If anyone thinks that Ligeti’s music is too subversive to belong to the Haydnesque tradition then I would politely suggest that they listen again to the older composer’s music – much of it as gloriously crazy as Ligeti’s!
This recording, presumably in the interests of filling out the running time, includes the very early work, the Andante and Allegretto for String Quartet. This sounds like exactly what it is: a student work written by a real prospect for the future. What it does allow the listener to perceive is that thread that takes Ligeti, step by step, from his earliest influences through the extension of Bartók in the first quartet – which has been dubbed “Bartók’s seventh quartet” – to the miracles of the second.
If it is unlikely that anyone would take much interest in that early student work but for the composer Ligeti became, it is important that the first quartet proper is not seen as some kind of pastiche of the older Hungarian composer. Yes, the fingerprints are there but more in the sense that the fingerprints of Haydn can be heard in even the mature music of Beethoven. Ligeti both takes that tradition further and perhaps more importantly also possesses his own distinctive, inimitable voice. This quartet is the very opposite of a callow composer learning the ropes. Its confident audacity is breathtaking.
It is a great relief that Ligeti defected to the other side of the Iron Curtain as things otherwise would have certainly ended tragically for a talent this subversive in the corrupt world of late Soviet Communism and its sphere of influence. I have thus far emphasised the surprising continuities to be found in this music but above all Ligeti is the iconoclast supreme. So iconoclastic indeed that he even ridicules the pomposity of his fellow radicals. He remained the Loge of modernism and his posterity is all the better for it. Even when his music takes us to the furthest remote extremes of human experience that crackling sense of humour provides the disoriented listener with something to hold on to. If the first quartet represents the nightmares that troubled the sleep of the local party commissars then they are also the nightmares common to all humanity. Ligeti, supremely, never leaves his listeners behind in pursuit of some arcane, unlistenable idea.
The result is a thrilling ride from first note to last with the student work as a kind of breather between the two quartets. The first quartet is made up of thirteen short movements woven together into a discombobulating and discomfiting journey through the nighttime psyche – in itself a metaphor for the creative and emotional life that went on beneath the grinning surface of socialist realism.
Out of the quiet shadows of its opening movement, bursts the irresistible dynamism of Ligeti the young tyro in the second and after that it doesn’t let up. The exuberance of Ligeti’s imagination even after all this time is staggering. It is a far cry from misguided notions of the traditional well of classical music running dry. Ideas, all of them audacious, tumble over one another. The Diotima Quartet seem beside themselves with glee at each successive wild notion and they have not only the technical resources to follow Ligeti wherever he leads but also the necessary devilish swagger. There is a lot to be said for pioneering recordings which bring the excitement of new discovery, but just as much can be said for performances such as this that have been able to absorb the composer’s work fully into the bloodstream. The Diotimas sound like they were weaned on Ligeti. Just in case I have given the impression that their playing of this first quartet is all frenzy, have a listen to the exquisite precision and soulfulness of the final movement. A comparison with their main rivals – big names like the Artemis, Arditti, Hagen and Keller Quartets – finds the Diotimas freer and more improvisatory in the opening movement and making everyone else sound polite in the second. The older recordings sound like they are still making sense of the score next to the much more natural, spontaneous feel of these newer accounts.
Indeed so compelling is the playing that I can forgive the terrible cover photograph – presumably conceived as a wry Ligeti like reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey but rather revealing that French comedy hasn’t moved on a lot from the execrable days of Jacques Tati!
If the Diotimas are exceptional in the first quartet, they are electrifying in the second. This music is about as difficult to play as quartet music gets. As I have indicated in relation to the first quartet, it isn’t just a matter of playing the notes accurately. This music demands fearlessness and the Diotimas have courage in abundance. Play Ligeti in a half hearted way and his music wilts. From a startling percussive pizzicato in the opening bars, it is clear that this particular band of players broach no compromise. In the hands of the Diotima Quartet we hear this masterpiece in all its flabbergasting glory. The raw unvarnished force of the fourth movement where the music approaches the condition of noise is like careering down a mountain with no brakes. The finale is like messages received from another star by Ligeti’s almost impossibly sensitive antennae. Anyone who doubts Ligeti’s status as one of the greatest post war composers needs to hear this piece as played by these performers.
These quartets have always been popular in the studio but the Diotima Quartet have decisively raised the bar. There nothing else to say but hats off to a recording of the year!
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