György LIGETI (1923-2006)
String Quartet No. 1 Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953-54) [22:52]
String Quartet No. 2 (1968) [21:00]
Andante and Allegretto (1950) [11:55]
Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong (violin I); Karen Kim (violin II); Jessica Bodner
(viola); Kee-Hyun Kim (cello))
rec. St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1-3 October 2007 DDD
NAXOS 8.570781 [55:46] 

Listening to these quartets makes one regret all the more that Ligeti did not fulfill his plan to compose a third quartet, as Richard Whitehouse noted in his accompanying detailed essay. Nonetheless, one can be thankful for the two outstanding works on this disc. They give ample evidence of a real successor to Béla Bartók in the genre. These quartets have been recorded a number of times, but the Parker approach these works as if newly discovered. My first exposure to them came via the Arditti Quartet in Sony’s Ligeti Edition, an invaluable compendium (later taken over by Warner as the Ligeti Project) of the vast majority of the composer’s oeuvre. I still value the Arditti’s accounts highly, as I do those of the younger Artemis Quartet on Virgin. Now we have the first “bargain” set by another young group that I had not heard of before. Right off, I will state that the Parker Quartet has nothing whatsoever to fear from its illustrious predecessors. It was also good to include the early Andante and Allegretto, even if it shows little in the way of hallmarks of the mature Ligeti. The quartets belong to two distinct stages in the composer’s life: the first from his “Hungarian” period before he left for the West, and the second from his more experimental years spent in Germany. How fortunate it would have been if Ligeti had given us an example late in his life when his compositions became a synthesis of the experimental and the more folk-oriented music of the earlier period. Alas, it was not to be. 

The Quartet No. 1, while owing no small debt to Bartók, has Ligeti’s identity firmly stamped on it from the beginning. As Whitehouse points out, it is in one continuous movement that can be divided into anywhere from four to eight sections. The Artemis Quartet’s recording has twelve tracks for the quartet and the Arditti eight, while the present one divides the work into four sections. I can think of no better introduction to Ligeti than this work, unless it be his Musica ricercata for piano or the Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, an adaptation of six of the piano pieces from the former work, both written in the period of the quartet. Indeed, Ligeti quotes the Vivace energico from the Musica ricercata or the Presto ruvido movement from the Bagatelles, the wind version of that movement, just before the “one minute mark” on the third track, following a delightfully humorous waltz. There is much comedy typical of this composer throughout the quartet, and the Parkers relish the humour without overdoing it. Their many slides are more pronounced than those by the Arditti, their pizzicati more vehement, and their pauses longer. They are obviously having a great deal of fun with the work, whereas the Arditti and to a lesser extent the Artemis project greater experience with the work, not to say that either quartet is bored with it. Having heard this quartet many times in the past, I was struck by their sheer energy and at the same time the utter stillness of the work’s quiet sections. They really bring out the contrasts in the quartet better than I recall hearing before, and their virtuosity is staggering. This may now be my favourite account of this amazing quartet.

The Quartet No. 2 is a much tougher work to get to know. Written in 1968 for the LaSalle Quartet, who incidentally made a famous recording of these quartets for DG, it is in five movements and structurally recalls Bartók. In every other way, though, this is as representative a composition of Ligeti’s middle period, as the Quartet No. 1 was of his first period. It begins with loud unison pizzicato that, as Whitehouse writes, sets the work in motion. Richard Steinitz in the definitive study on the composer in English, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, describes the quartet as “a wild zigzag trajectory catapulted out of furious energy into a state of graceful stasis, choreographed in five movements.” I have had the pleasure of attending a performance of the work and can say that the visual element is important in getting to really appreciate it. The most memorable movement for me is the third, one of those “mechanistic” pieces for which Ligeti is famous. It is quite similar to the third movement, Movimento preciso e mecannico of his Chamber Concerto. It is played mostly pizzicato, run amok, and is microtonal and rhythmically complex. The fourth movement juxtaposes loud, jagged chords with very quiet moments. The quartet ends by vaporizing into nothingness, but not before a fleeting episode of melancholy, something that would be more prevalent in Ligeti’s late compositions. As in the earlier work, the Parkers are superb and fully the equal of the Arditti and Artemis recordings. Their sheer virtuosity is evident throughout this demanding work.

After the second quartet, the Andante and Allegretto comes as quite a shock. We are now back in a much earlier period - not only Bartókian, but Romantic even. Yet, it is genuine Ligeti with his own brand of Hungarian folk melody. In a way it is a nice to end the disc with music that is simple and beautiful. One can sit back and enjoy the warm sound of this young ensemble. They treat the work with as much respect as the later and greater quartets.

To have these three works in such outstanding performances, recorded in sound that is both rich and clear, and at bargain price, is a real treat.

Leslie Wright