This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
Metamorphosis (Bartók, Ligeti, Kurtág), Cuarteto Casals
(released on August 10, 2010)
HMC 902062 | 54'13"
Boccherini, op. 32/3-6, Quartetto Borciani
Boccherini, op. 32/1-2 and 29, Quartetto Borciani
The group's performance of György Ligeti's first string quartet, subtitled Métamorphoses nocturnes, was nothing short of revelatory. Many young string quartets are playing Ligeti's quartets these days -- the Pacifica, Parker, Brentano, Galatea, Artemis, Hagen, for a start -- but few have brought out all of the first quartet's best qualities like this performance (they also played the work during their Carnegie Hall debut in 2007). This quartet dates from the early 1950s, just in the period after Ligeti had survived World War II: working in Budapest, he and his friend György Kurtág devoted themselves to the music of Bartók, with Ligeti even making ethnomusicological outings into the countryside to collect Hungarian folk songs. Bartók's influence can be heard throughout the work, in the irregular, folk-influenced rhythms and the development of the chromatic motif that opens it, as well as the many hallucinatory instrumental effects. First violinist Vera Martínez led the group with a tone that could be both ferocious and seductive, that last an important part of the nocturnal inspiration that is sometimes missed. The group's new recording shows their understanding of the historical background, pairing the piece with Bartók's fourth quartet and Kurtág's twelve microludes for string quartet, op. 13.
All of the group's suavity seemed to evaporate in the second half, when pianist Andreas Klein joined them for Schumann's piano quintet, op. 44. This performance was a reminder that even the most exquisite piece of chamber music -- something that we have heard memorably on its own and as the accompaniment to modern dance -- can be rendered mediocre by the wrong performance. Where Joyce Yang, playing the work with the Takács Quartet, was equal parts transparency and force where she needed it, Klein's hand at the open-lidded piano, an already loud instrument in that space, was all brute force. He did not seem to give any quarter to the other musicians, pushing and pulling the tempo to suit his own needs, and the strings responded in kind, generally with hammering force. This led to some disjunction rhythmically between piano and strings in the faster movements, and an unsatisfying, overblown ensemble sound, a disappointing end to the evening.
The next concerts at the Kreeger Museum will be the annual June Chamber Music Festival (June 10 to 17).