Ligeti: String Quartet No. 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes); String Quartet No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Ligeti
LABELS: Ars musici
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes); String Quartet No. 2
PERFORMER: Artemis Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: AM 1276-2
The composer himself described his First String Quartet, Métamorphoses nocturnes, as ‘pre-Ligeti in style’. Written in 1953-4, it pre-dates the arrival of Ur-Ligeti sound-worlds in Artikulation and Apparitions by just a few years, and stems more obviously from the quartets of his fellow-Hungarian Bartók, the last of which had been written only 15 years before. That said, there is some strikingly inventive music in this procession of 12 short movements – from ghostly nocturnes in the Bartókian mould to sardonic dances, cartoon-like asides, expressionist outpourings and lyrical interludes.

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But none of this prepares us for the sheer originality of the Second Quartet, an undisputed 20th-century classic. Written in 1967-8 when Ligeti was at the height of his ‘micropolyphonic’ period, it coaxes an array of sounds from his four players even Bartók wouldn’t have imagined. From dense, scurrying sound-clusters, through out-of-phase pizzicato ostinatos (an extension of the Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes of 1962) to ethereal washes of harmonics (respectively his favoured ‘clocks’ and ‘clouds’), the non-narrative, athematic forms suggest anything might happen – and it usually does.

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This work was commissioned by the American LaSalle Quartet, whose 1969 recording (DG) has remained the benchmark, even in the light of the Arditti’s 1995 recording for Sony’s late-lamented Ligeti Edition. The relatively young Artemis Quartet from Germany has worked extensively with the LaSalle’s leader Walter Levin. That authority seems to have rubbed off on its own Ligeti performances, to the extent that they convey, even more than these illustrious predecessors, every nuance of the music – its bite, subtlety, atmosphere and garish audacity. Matthew Rye