The long shadow of Béla Bartók hangs over both of these late 20th
century string quartets. The Keuris was written in 1982 and the Kagel in 1993, but both inhabit soundworlds that evoke the interwar years more than they do their own times. That is not necessarily a bad thing and there is far more potential in Bartók’s musical ideas than his own music could fully exploit, but the string quartets presented here are from the conservative end of both composers’ outputs. Both are skilfully crafted and artistically accomplished works, but neither fully demonstrates the individuality for which both composers are better known.
Kagel’s Fourth Quartet achieves an impressive balance between atonal lingua franca and ambiguous stylistic allusion. He regularly strikes up dance tunes, or makes early preparations for tonal cadences. Neither the dance episodes nor the cadences ever fully materialise, but the thwarted preparations themselves become the basis of new atonal textures and sections. Coming, as it does, from the later years of Kagel’s career, the work demonstrates the results of a lifetime’s experience of integrating diverse elements into unified works. It is as if these disparate elements have been digested and artistically integrated to the point that all tension between them has been transcended. In this respect, it is similar to Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, and both are works by composers so used to dealing with heterogeneous material that even when they distance themselves from musical montage, it shows itself as the basis of their mature art. But unlike the Schnittke, this is a frenetic work, full of fast music and abrupt changes of tempo and mood. Bartók’s presence is felt in the use of walking cello bass lines, Bartók pizzicatos and, most significantly, the paradoxical impression of cosmopolitan folksiness. He shares Barkok’s ability to take (or generate) folk material, and then to presented it in the most sophisticated contexts without any apparent disparity. But Kagel draws on no ethnic sources to create this effect, instead he somehow creates his own endearing vernacular, a musical platform from which he can both communicate directly and throw in his occasional surprises. One such is the little jig that interrupts the flow of the final movement. Again, it is not completely incongruous, but is an elegant reminder to the ear, by then so accustomed to the flowing Kagel ‘style’, that there is actually no such thing, and that the whole work up to this point has been based on a subtly compiled, but impressively diverse, range of styles.
The First String Quartet by Tristan Keuris is another skilfully crafted work, although it is not in the same league as the Kagel. Like the Kagel, it is music based on atonal, but by no means uncomfortable, textures. Again, this is the basis of Bartók’s influence on the work, all three composers creating Modernist textures with broad appeal simply through their technical ability rather than through any regression to tonal rhetoric. Having said that, the music also evokes the voice of Benjamin Britten, not least through the precision with which Keuris conceives, voices and notates his string lines. And if the results occasionally sound orchestral, it is thanks to the composer’s Britten-esque skill in handling the sting instruments to maximum timbral - and indeed musical - effect. The work is in three movements, an arch-form - again from Bartók - revolving around a central slow movement. The outer movements share thematic material and both are based on thematic manipulation which manages to be rigorous without ever risking pedantry. Most of the middle movement is based on a single solo line, shared around the group and usually accompanied by the other players. He is not afraid to reduce the ensemble to just this single line of occasion, an effect that benefits from the tenacious, yet elegant tone of each of the players.
The performances of both works are sympathetic to the composer’s aims: disciplined without ever feeling austere. That tone quality I mentioned in the Keuris is a great example, a focused, deliberate sound in a passage that could easily by misinterpreted as romantic arioso. The Lagos Ensemble is a Dutch group (the box makes no mention of any connections with Nigeria), and they are joined for this recording by the guest viola player Kyra Philippi. She does them proud, and the SACD sound is especially beneficial to the viola and cello, both of whom come across with a rich, characterful tone. In general the sound quality is warm without being too reverberant, impressive considering it was recorded in a church, and the 1950s styling of the box is elegant if not exactly appropriate. Keuris fans are unlikely to be disappointed by this release, and nor are - the slightly more numerous - fans of Kagel. It might also be attractive to those with a taste for the Bartók or the Britten quartets who are looking for new directions in 20th
century repertoire. These aren’t dazzling masterpieces of the calibre of either of those composers, but they are skilfully crafted examples of one of the paths taken by the genre in recent years.