Kagel: Pan; String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3

COMPOSERS: Kagel
LABELS: Naïve Montaigne
WORKS: Pan; String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3
PERFORMER: Arditti Quartet; Dietmar Wiesner (piccolo)
CATALOGUE NO: MO 782129 Reissue (1990, 1997)
Since the late Eighties, the Paris-based label Montaigne has been building up a substantial and intensely valuable catalogue of 20th-century music, concentrating on works that have never been recorded before, and especially on the more challenging and radical of European and American composers; you are unlikely to find much Minimalism or middle-of-the-road neo-Romanticism on Montaigne. Now some of the most important of its recordings are being reissued, at mid-price and handsomely repackaged; 20 titles are included in the first batch, ranging from Aperghis to Xenakis, but performances by the Arditti Quartet are the signal feature of the series.

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The Arditti’s crusade on behalf of the modern string quartet repertoire begins with the Second Viennese School, and though its lean, sinewy tone is not everyone’s ideal for early Schoenberg, its versions of his quartets are the finest in the catalogue: tense, unsentimental, and always stunningly precise in every detail. That precision and the players’ quick-witted musical intelligence are not only perfectly suited to Webern but also to Elliott Carter. And though the Arditti’s definitive interpretations of the first four of his quartets are not yet included in the mid-price series, its version of the Fifth is, coupled with a group of his miniatures and the Duo for violin and piano.

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Irvine Arditti plays that still daunting work with pianist Ursula Oppens, but for Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura he is accompanied only by recorded and transformed versions of himself. His performance reveals the work to be one of Nono’s masterpieces. Rihm’s three quartets provide a protean sample of his important contribution to the literature, while Kagel’s quartets, together with Pan, shows him doing what he always does, reassessing the medium in an utterly original and provocative way.