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György KURTÁG (b.1926)
Complete String Quartets
Quatuor ŕ cordes op.1 (1959) [13:49]
Hommage ŕ András Mihály - Douze microludes pour quatuor ŕ cordes op. 13 (1977-78) [9:00]
Officium breve in memoriam Andreć Szervánszky op. 28 (1988-1989) [12:22]
Aus der Ferne III (1991) [1:59]
Aus der Ferne V - Alfred Schlee in memoriam (1999) [2:58]
Hommage ŕ Jacob Obrecht (2004-2005) [4:01]
Six moments musicaux op. 44 (1999-2005) [13:31]
Arioso - Hommage ŕ Walter Levin 85 in Alban Berg's Manier (2009) [2:52]
Quatuor Molinari (Olga Ranzenhofer (violin); Frédéric Bednarz (violin); Frédéric Lambert (viola); Pierre-Alain Bouvrette (cello))
rec. Église St Augustin, Mirabel, Quebec, Canada, December 2014.
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2705 [60:38]

György Kurtág’s complete string quartets span a compositional career of over half a century, beginning in 1959 with his Quatuor ŕ cordes op.1. It was twenty years before he returned to the medium, with his Hommage ŕ Mihály András, 12 microludes for string quartet. Then there was a gap of ten years before Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervánsky. The remaining oeuvre were conceived  between 1991 and 2009, the year Kurtág composed  Arioso -Hommage ŕ Walter Levin, cast  ‘in the style of Alban Berg’ commemorating the 85th birthday of Walter Levin, founder of the LaSalle Quartet (review ~ review).

The composer spent a year in Paris between 1957 and 1958 following the Hungarian uprising in 1956. This was a crucial and formative time, when he studied with Max Deutsch, Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. Personal problems intervened, however, and he began to suffer from depression, for which he sought therapy from the psychologist Marianne Stein. The treatment was a success and provided a stimulus for his artistic development. During his Paris sojourn he encountered the music of Anton Webern, a discovery of immense significance. Kurtág's music became strongly influenced by Webern as well as by the music of Béla Bartók. He became a celebrated performer of Bartók's piano music.

Undertaking a profound study of Webern’s music, which included recopying his works, enabled Kurtág to imbibe his working methods and style. These inform his own compositions. Everything is pared to its essentials, stripped down to bare bones, with not a note too many. Concise structures are the name of the game. Marianne Stein had suggested economy of gesture to remedy his creative block. So, his music is reduced to fragments or shards, and these are used as building blocks, with each individual note making a particular impact. His Op. 1, the only work accorded the formal title of "String Quartet", displays this focus of approach. It’s an amalgam of Webern’s concision and Bartók's rhythmic buoyancy. It portrays his journey from abyss to life, from darkness to light. Octave leaps, ostinatos, piercing harmonics and unsettling contrasts are all part and parcel. He also throws in some Messiaen-like birdsong for good measure. He dedicated this thought-provoking work to Stein, and it set him on the road to becoming one of Hungary’s prominent composers.

Op. 1 set him on a course. The other works for string quartet in all but name are homages to composers, performers and friends. Hommage ŕ András Mihály, Hungarian composer, conductor and cellist, consists of twelve microludes corresponding to the twelve degrees of the chromatic scale. Officium breve in memoriam Andreć Szervánszky comprises fifteen short movements utilizing variation, paraphrase and quotation. Alfred Schlee was head of a music publishing firm in Vienna, and saved many scores from falling into the hands of the Nazis. He did much to champion the avant-garde. Kurtág pays homage to him in Aus der Ferne (From afar) III and V. Hommage ŕ Jacob Obrecht is dedicated to János Bali, a mathematician, choir director and composer who studied with Kurtág. The inspiration that Bali derives from Renaissance polyphony is mirrored in the polyphonic complexion of the work, without ever losing its Hungarian character. Even the Six moments musicaux op. 44, composed for the 2005 Concours International de Quatuor ŕ Cordes de Bordeaux, bears a dedication to his son Gyurinak, himself a composer. Two of the six movements are homages to fellow musicians György Sebők and Leoš Janáček, and in their entirety cover a wide range of emotions. Invocatio (1) is confident and assured, whereas Footfalls (2) sounds tentative. The Sebők movement (4) is elegiac and Les Adieux (VI) in the manner of Janáček is plaintive. Arioso is a homage to Walter Levin, first violin of the LaSalle Quartet, on the occasion of his 85th birthday. Between 1947 and 1987 the ensemble made a speciality of programming contemporary composers, with a particular emphasis on the Second Viennese School. Arioso may be just shy of three minutes but Kurtág packs plenty of melancholy ŕ la Berg into the piece.

Acclaimed by critics as 'Canada's answer to the Kronos or Arditti Quartet’, the Quatuor Molinari was founded in 1997 by its 1st violinist Olga Ranzenhofer. It takes its name from the Canadian abstract artist Guido Molinari. Based in Montreal, their focus is on performing 20th and 21st century music, commissioning new works and programming the music of their native composers. As far as alternative recordings go, cycles of Kurtág's string quartet works are not overly subscribed, and I was only able to find one other recording by the Athena Quartett on the Neos label. I haven't heard it to offer any sort of comparison. The Quatuor Molinari’s playing is sharply focused and ensemble is flawless. They’ve obviously lived and breathed these works for some time, and they deliver confident and committed readings. The acoustic of the Église Saint-Augustin is responsive to the subtleties and nuances of these complex scores. Olga Ranzenhofer's liner-notes provide helpful background. I’ve found this music a revelation.

Stephen Greenbank



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