Kurtág 80th-Birthday Celebration: Keller Quartet

The Art of Fugue – Contrapuncti I, II, III, IV, VI, IX, XI and XVIII; Canons XIV, XV and XVII
Twelve Microludes, Op.13
Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky, Op.28
Ligatura [two versions]
Signs, Games and Messages [excerpts: Hommage à Johann Sebastian; Flowers for Zsigmondy; Perpetuum Mobile; Aus der Ferne III]

Keller Quartet [András Keller & János Pilz (violins), Zoltán Gál (viola) & Judit Szabó (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 October, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The second of the Wigmore Hall’s concerts celebrating the 80th-birthday of György Kurtág featured the Keller Quartet in an artfully-planned miscellany interspersing music by the Hungarian composer with quartet transcriptions of movements from Bach’s contrapuntal monument The Art of Fugue.

Written without a specified performing medium, the latter exists in a variety of incarnations from solo keyboard to full orchestra. There are several transcriptions alone for string quartet – notably one by the late Robert Simpson – with that by the Keller distinguished by its virtual absence of vibrato and a concentration on linear essentials: a realisation as inward as it is keenly focused in expression, even if the timbral differentiation that the medium is ideally equipped to provide is rather less in evidence.

The performance itself divided into two halves of roughly 32 and 52 minutes, and with the admirable request that applause be kept until the end of each. Opening with the first three Contrapuncti, in which the fugue subject is heard in (relatively!) straightforward guises, followed by the incisive duet for violin and cello of the Fifteenth Canon, the Keller proceeded with Kurtág’s Twelve Microludes (1978) – dedicated to the composer’s colleague András Milhály – comprising Kurtág’s second quartet. A highly assured synthesis of Bartókian and Webernian traits, these miniatures effortlessly interlock into a ten-minute whole that takes on the emotional impact of a far larger work. The first part ended with Bach’s Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Contrapuncti – each progressively more elaborate than the last and played with vitality and attention to detail, even if the tempo of the latter verged on the headlong.

More intricate in its alternations, the second part duly opened with the distilled intensity of Kurtág’s Ligatura (1989) in its version for violin, viola and cello, then continued with three of the pieces gathered under the apt collective title Signs, Games and Messages: a nonchalant ‘Hommage à Johann Sebastian’, the powerfully evocative ‘Flowers for Zsigmondy’, and a ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ ‘with little trace of the suavity found in Johann Strauss’s more famous example. A trenchant account of Bach’s Fourteenth Canon paved the way for ‘Aus der Ferne III’ – music whose implosive intensity conveys so much more than it states. The Eighteenth Canon and Eleventh Contrapunctus were a suitably implacable context for Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky (1989): Kurtág’s third quartet, its fifteen movements add up to a work more emotionally inclusiveand formally open-ended than its predecessor.

The most telling alternation was still to come: the mighty edifice of Bach’s Eighteenth Contrapunctus, here left to conclude in poetic incompleteness, being followed by the two-violin version of Ligatura – a hushed yet intensely alive ‘ending’, and of an inevitable rightness to make one wonder how Bach himself would have reacted to such a juxtaposition.

Of course, one could argue with the placement of certain pieces by each composer in the reciprocal shedding of light onto their respective music, and it was a pity that neither Kurtág’s first quartet nor his fourth were included (for all that the former is often uncharacteristic and the latter featured in the Wigmore’s previous Kurtág event, but the essential point – that the music of Bach and Kurtág illuminate each other when so combined – was forcibly made. Moreover, the many other permutations remaining ought to encourage further such recitals, both by the Keller and other quartets, in future.

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