The Molinari Quartet perform Kurtag’s Complete String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Kurtag
LABELS: ATMA Classique
ALBUM TITLE: Kurtag
WORKS: Complete string quartets
PERFORMER: Molinari Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: ACD 2 2705

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Kurtág wrote his First String Quartet (1959) after spending days in a Paris library copying out Webern’s works. You can hear it. But while its brevity and fractured apprehension resonate, this was the moment the Hungarian began to forge his own language, one of silences, scattered pitches, jittery ostinatos and microtonal meshes, beside which Webern’s music sounds positively Romantic in its sustained development. A Webern canon, too, is in the DNA of Officium Breve, Op. 28, one of Kurtág’s most performed pieces and an absolute tour de force. After a chain of tiny, gestural canons, a single insistent pulsing pitch pools into a flood of tone: the impact is extraordinary. Its finale, Arioso interrotto, receives here the tenderest of caresses.

From 1996, the Keller Quartet (ECM) give bolder, more spacious and highly dramatised performances in a slightly more resonant acoustic. The tiny Aus der Ferne III is intensely expressive in their hands, while in the Molinaris’ it’s almost frozen alive: both approaches are effective. Where the latter shine is in the luminescent, mirage-like microludes of Hommage à Mihály András.

Kurtág’s shadow-world is alive with the whispers of those he reveres, transformed in the crucible of his ear. The Keller set remains a benchmark, yet the Molinari offer a clutch of treasurable newer pieces: there’s wit in Op. 44 Moments musicaux with its vibrant rhythmic games, tangy metal mutes, medieval hocketing and whistling birds, at its heart a searing elegy for pianist György Sebok. The Arioso (2009), too, makes a coda of spellbound consolation.

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Helen Wallace