This incandescent disc documents two iterations of the Budapest-based Keller Quartet: János Pilz plays second violin in György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 and Samuel Barber’s Adagio, succeeded by Zsófia Környei in Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2. No matter the personnel, the quartet’s music-making is fierce and engrossing, and the program offers gratifying surprises.
Thomas Larson titled a book about the Adagio (officially, Molto adagio) from Barber’s 1936 String Quartet No. 1 The Saddest Music Ever Written. In an arrangement for string orchestra, it has become a generic hymn for public mourning (broadcast following the deaths of FDR and JFK and the 9/11 atrocities) and, for some, a cozy, tonal reproach to post-common-practice styles. But sandwiched between Ligeti’s quartets and played in a chaste manner, its stepwise meanderings seem less soothing than eerie, inconsolable echoes through time of Marais or Purcell’s laments.
As performed by the Kellers, the icy hiss that opens Ligeti’s Second Quartet (1968) and threads its way through the piece is itself one of the uncanniest sounds you will ever hear. The quartet is bathed in unearthly tones: frantic raps and pizzicati; shredded, scuttling figures; and a dizzying slither into a vacuum-like silence at work’s end. The First Quartet (“Métamorphoses nocturnes,” 1953–54) dances around a core of baleful near-soundlessness, flirting with the galumphing, folk-inflected rhythms of Bartók’s music but ultimately spiraling away from it. A must-have recording.—Marion Lignana Rosenberg