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György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Métamorphoses Nocturnes (Night Metamorphoses)
String Quartet no.1, Métamorphoses Nocturnes (1953-54/1958) [21:03]
String Quartet no.2 (1968) [21:00]
Sonata for cello (1948-53) [8:18]
Quatuor Béla (Julien Dieudegard (violin I), Frédéric Aurier (violin II), Julian Boutin (viola), Luc Dedreuil (cello))
rec. Studio Alys, Grange des Villarons, Paris, 1-4 May 2012.
AEON AECD1332 [50:21]

Though audiences with more mainstream tastes may wonder why, György Ligeti's string quartets are currently all the rage with performers and labels. With what might be thought of as unfortunate timing, the Béla Quartet's recording on Aeon comes out at the same time as the new Armida Quartet's debut on AVI (8553298) which aptly couples Ligeti's Métamorphoses Nocturnes with quartets by Bartók and Kurtág. These follow the Keller Quartet on ECM New Series this past summer (2197), and the JACK Quartet a year ago on Wigmore Hall Live (0053), on which they uncompromisingly offered Ligeti's No.2 alongside works by Cage, Xenakis and Pintscher.
 
The Parker Quartet on Naxos in 2009 (8.570781), the Artemis Quartet on Ars Musici (AM 1276-2) and the Hagen Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 474327) all add significantly to the competition. The premiere recording prize went to the now defunct LaSalle Quartet, to whom Ligeti dedicated the Second. Their 1970s LP recordings for DG are nowadays available on CD, or at least the Second is (DG 4743272). The ever-intrepid Arditti Quartet is the only ensemble to have recorded the 'cycle' twice, first on Wergo (WER 60079-50) and later for the Sony/Teldec Ligeti Edition (SK 62306). In fact, they have since recorded the Second Quartet a third time.
 
The relatively new and young Béla Quartet from France are unusually adventurous in their repertory. The likes of Cage, Crumb, Kurtág, Lachenmann, Reich, Saariaho, Scelsi and a host of more obscure contemporary composers giving a good idea of where their proclivities lie.
 
Ligeti sits comfortably within that pantheon of modern/post-modern grandees, although he never got round to writing a third quartet that would have bulked out Aeon's rather parsimonious running time. They are not alone in this, it must be said - the Kellers, for example, coupled Ligeti with Barber's Adagio op.11, giving listeners an eiderdown pillow to go with the scratchy sheets, but no extra minutes. The Artemis Quartet did not bother with any extras, leaving a stingy running time of 42 minutes. The Parkers offered Ligeti's 12-minute folk-inflected Andante and Allegretto - which sounds, incidentally, like something by another composer from a bygone era.
 
Ligeti's two quartets are fabulous works, and their gradual absorption into the general repertoire is well deserved, but the easiest place to approach the composer is via the Sonata for solo cello, which is soulful and melodic, and somewhat reminiscent, curiously perhaps, of Hindemith's well-known op.25/3. On the other hand, it does give the listener rather the wrong impression of what to expect from Ligeti. Whilst the First Quartet, from what Ligeti himself considered his own "prehistoric" period, is lightly Bartókian and thus readily approachable, the Second is openly avant-gardist. Still, the work is predominantly quiet and calm, with only brief, twitching episodes of droning dissonance, demented pizzicato or night-creature scurryings. It is in George Crumb's Black Angels territory, but less scary.
 
Aeon's audio is excellent. In fact, in engineering terms it arguably beats all competition. There is some minor snorting by one of the string players audible in the quietest sections of Quartet no.1 - perhaps cellist Luc Dedreuil, because he clearly feels the need to breathe emphatically for the microphone in the Cello Sonata. In purely musical terms, however, the Quatuor Béla's Ligeti ranks with the best - and perhaps even higher.
 
Detailed, well written notes compensate in part for the short running-time.  

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