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8.570781 - LIGETI, G.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Andante and Allegretto (Parker Quartet)

György Ligeti (1923–2006)
String Quartets


The Hungarian composer György Ligeti was born in the Transylvanian town of Dicsöszentmárton (now Tîrnaveni in Romania) on 28 May 1923. The Second World War saw the extermination of his father and brother in concentration camps and his own close encounter with death on the Eastern front. Despite such upheaval, he graduated from the Cluj Conservatoire in 1945, then studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, teaching theory, harmony and counterpoint from 1949. He soon began to evolve an idiom combining folk-music with more experimental means, as in Six Bagatelles for wind quintet (1953) and First String Quartet (1954), though such pieces could hardly expect performance in a Hungary subject to Stalinist dictates.

In December 1956, as the Soviet militia put down the Hungarian Uprising, he escaped to Austria, heading to Cologne where he found work at the studio of West German Radio. Although he produced an electronic masterpiece in Artikulation (1957) the circumscribed manner of post-war serialism held little appeal for one who had experienced ‘closed systems’ at first hand and his first orchestral piece, Apparitions (1959), caused consternation with its pivoting between the earnest and the inane. His 1960’s music moved along distinct lines, on the one hand the not wholly humorous Poème Symphonique (1962) for 100 metronomes and Aventures et Nouvelles Aventures (1965), wordless music theatre more ominous than hilarious, on the other, the orchestral piece Atmosphères (1961) and organ work Volumina (1962), whose exquisite textural contrasts were to characterize such works as the Requiem (1965).

Ligeti moved forward by reintegrating the past on his own terms. The harmonic translucence of Lontano (1967) was followed by the reintroduction of melody in Melodien (1971) and the interplay of melodic lines in San Francisco Polyphony (1974). He also produced such abstract works as the Second String Quartet (1968) and its playful counterpart in the Chamber Concerto (1970), while the non-literal repetition of Clocks and Clouds (1973) confirmed his interest in American minimalism, heard to startling effect in Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976). The climax of this period was the surrealist opera Le Grand Macabre, which had its première in Stockholm during April 1978.

After this Ligeti sought a way out of the serial impasse that avoided a return to classically-based tonality. Although the Horn Trio (1982) was criticized for its Brahmsian sound-world, its overtly Hungarian inflection and recourse to different tunings inform the music from his last two decades. Running across these are the piano Etudes, which redefine the instrument’s tonal possibilities as completely as those by Debussy and Chopin, along with a large-scale Sonata for Solo Viola (1994) and Concertos for Piano (1988), Violin (1993) and Horn (1999). Although he long contemplated another opera—initially on The Tempest then Alice in Wonderland—Ligeti wrote no further compositions after 2001. He died in Vienna on 12 June 2006.

Ligeti’s quartet output gives a good idea of his earlier development. Subtitled ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’, the First Quartet was written during 1953–54. After a belated première by the Ramor Quartet in Vienna on 8 May 1958, it received few performances until taken up by the Arditti Quartet two decades on and latterly by many younger groups. For all its indebtedness to Bartók, it has a keen individuality and a novel approach to form: in one continuous movement, the piece can be heard as falling into four or even eight sections.

Over slowly ascending scales, violin and viola unfold an eloquent though hesitant melodic line, gaining in intensity until it explodes into a passage that features aggressive writing in rhythmic unison. Building to a violent climax, this stops short to reveal violin then cello musing over held chords. A virile scherzo 2 takes hold of the ensemble, making way for a propulsive music where the players animatedly exchange gestures. This is contrasted with a searching idea for viola and cello, the violins sustaining a tremolo chord that periodically bursts into manic activity. The searching music gains the upper hand, then makes way for a hesitant waltz idea 3 contrasted with energetic folk-inflected music. This is succeeded by a poignant soliloquy on solo violin, joining the other instruments for a robust theme that takes in a variety of textures as well as strident offbeat pizzicatos. Subsiding, the music then re-emerges into manic activity 4, punctuated by further vicious gestures. The last of these reveals the viola unfolding a rhapsodic theme over airy harmonics, the cello taking this up before a final unison lunge and a close of becalmed, even regretful resignation.

The Second Quartet was written in 1968 for the LaSalle Quartet, who gave its première in Baden-Baden on 14 December 1969, since when the work has been at the forefront of the modern repertoire. While the five-movement format recalls the quartets of Bartók, the underlying trajectory could only be Ligeti, the complementary pairs of movements setting up contrasts to which the finale does not so much pose a solution as channel the momentum in unexpected ways.

The first movement opens with a loud unison pizzicato that sets in motion a breathless yet inward activity in which greater textural activity is gradually uncovered, the music gaining emotional variety as a brief though potent climax is reached that soon unravels into mysterious unison harmonics. The second movement begins with undulating gestures from all four players that interlock into a more substantial texture as well as opening onto a plateau of restless anticipation, the music’s threatened yet always prevented implosion adding to a sense of imminent danger. The third movement focuses on mechanistic pizzicatos that assume various patterns on the way to a brief climax that quickly disintegrates. The fourth movement is dominated by sustained and brutal unison writing thrown into relief by passages of glacial inaction, with the initial music determinedly having the last word. The fifth movement opens in greatest possible contrast with a gently oscillating music across all four instruments, the texture alternately opening-out then closing-in before it assumes greater tangibility as ideas from the earlier movements are obliquely brought into play prior to vanishing beyond earshot.

Although he spoke of composing a third quartet, Ligeti wrote nothing further for the medium, though he did release an early Andante and Allegretto. Written in 1950, these pieces typify his concern at this time to create music that was easily accessible without bowing to the constraints of Socialist Realism: a ‘positive compromise’ such as the composer later admitted was a complete self-deception.

The Andante opens with an easeful theme that is subjected to a fair degree of motivic transformation. All four instruments contribute to a discourse that retains its underlying calm as the music draws to a tranquil ending. The Allegretto betrays folk-music inflections, the lively main theme having its distinctive rhythm varied in various ways. A central section features more expressive writing, before the initial music resumes its course on the way to a wistful close.

Richard Whitehouse

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