Béla Bartók wrote his "44 Duos for Two Violins" in 1932 for inclusion in Freiburg music teacher and musicologist Erich Doflein's systematic violin method, the Geigenschulwerk. Doflein advocated a form of progressive musical education which would introduce the violin student to the grammar of new music and older music, as well as to ontemporary playing techniques. With the "44 Duos", the further intention was to increase awareness of the beauties and idiosyncrasies of folk music. "In their first few years of learning, students should be familiarised with pieces that possess the artless simplicity of folk music but also its melodic and rhythmic peculiarities," said Bartók, who based all but two of the Violin Duos on original folk tunes that embrace a wide variety of ethnic origins: Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Ukrainian, and Arabic - as well as Slovak and Hungarian.
As with his "Mikrokosmos" pieces for piano, the "44 Duos" transcend, of course, mere pedagogic intent. This is very finely-crafted music that bears out Hanns Eisler's assessment: "Had Bartók written nothing but his arrangements of Romanian, Slovakian and Hungarian peasant songs and dances, he would nonetheless number among the great masters in the history of music." For Bartók did not merely record and preserve folk music in the Duos; he merged progressive sonic concepts with old rules of part-writing, and married the "spontaneous expression of musical feeling" and unusual scales which he found in folk music with the broader harmonic palette of new music. Thus the apparently simple and often delightful wedding songs, harvest songs, soldier's songs and lullabies collected in the "44 Duos" repay the very closest attention. "Bartók's miniatures, some of which take no more than 30 seconds to play, were long treated as pure studies rather than what they actually are: attenuated tonal resources not withstanding, these are challenging character pieces on a par with Schumann's 'Kinderszenen'. Easy to underestimate, they pose the same problems of interpretation summed up by the bon mot about Mozart's piano sonatas: too simple for children, too difficult for adults" (Wolfgang Sandner in the CD booklet notes).
In the cycle as published, the pieces are graded in terms of their technical demands, complexity increasing as the student progresses. However Bartók requested that for performances a new order be determined. András Keller and producer Manfred Eicher have integrated the pieces here into a particularly satisfying dramaturgical flow. 45 duos, in fact appear in the cycle on this occasion, as Keller and Pilz play both variations of the 36th duo, "Bagpipes". The recording is rounded out with pieces from Bartók's most important 'successors', György Ligeti and György Kurtág. Ligeti and Kurtág have assimilated the influence of Bartók and share his interest in Hungarian folk music. Ligeti, inspired by Bartók's example, also collected Romanian folk songs; his "Ballad and Dance" is based upon one of them. And Kurtág, again taking his cue from Bartók ("Bartók is my mother tongue") viewed his own "Játékok" collection of "children's games" as a contemporary follow-up to the "Mikrokosmos" teaching pieces. András Keller and Janosz Pilz previously recorded two versions of the "Ligatura" (with the Keller Quartet plus the composer on celesta), on the ECM Kurtág album, "Musik für Streichinstrumente".
What is addressed, then, on this album is the creative continuum of Hungarian music - its three most important 20th century composers, its folk tradition, and two of its most outstanding players. As Paul Griffiths noted recently, "Thanks partly to a rich store of folk music that survived in everyday use long enough to be recorded, partly to Bartók's example and partly to an unusual vigour in musical education at all levels, Hungary has been providing the world with composers and performing musicians out of all proportion to the size of its population."
Work with Andrŕs Keller and Janosz Pilz in the Keller Quartet continues at ECM. Forthcoming releases include: Alexander Knaifel's "In Air Clean and Unseen" for piano and string quartet, with Oleg Malov; Shostakovich's 15th String Quartet; and Schnittke's Piano Quintet, with Alexander Lubimov.
In 1996 András Keller, first violinist of the string quartet that bears his name, decided to make a complete recording of Bélá Bartók's six string quartets - a musical challenge for every violinist and, for every Hungarian, an emotional one besides. "It was almost half a century [writes Wolfgang Sandner] since his teacher Sándor Végh had done the same. Pushing the footstep metaphor just a bit further, one would have to say: the Keller Quartet have set their prints alongside those of the Végh Quartet. Unsentimental, intelligently responsive to structure, multifaceted, almost a bit modernistically cool in the overall conception - an assessment that also implies praise for the teacher: Végh's students do sound, not like Végh, but like themselves.
This certainly applies to András Keller. Although, for a violinist, he took up his instrument relatively late, namely at the age of seven, by the age of twelve he had already won a prize at an international competition in Usti, in what is now the Czech Republic. He enrolled at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1974, studying with Dénes Kovács, Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág (chamber music). In 1983, while still a student, he won the Hubay Violin Competition and participated in master classes with Sándor Végh in Salzburg. After he obtained his performing diploma in 1984, his career developed along three parallel tracks: as an orchestra musician, soloist and chamber musician. He was leader first of the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra (1983-86) and then of the Budapest Festival Orchestra (until 1991). In 1987 he, the violinist János Pilz and two fellow students from the Budapest Academy - Zoltán Gál (viola) and Ottó Kertész (cello) - founded the Keller Quartet, winning both the Evian and the Borciani competitions in 1991. In the meantime András Keller has also made frequent solo appearances, both with leading Hungarian orchestras and with major international ensembles. Performing works written for him, he has played at numerous festivals of contemporary music as well - the Festival d'Automne, Lockenhaus, Wien Modern, Witten, Kihmo and Warsaw.
János Pilz was born in Kiskörös, a small town in the Hungarian plain that has had a major impact on the nation: Kiskörös was the birthplace of Sándor Pétofi, Hungary's greatest poet. Like Keller, Pilz studied with Dénes Kovács at the Budapest Academy of Music and then went on to become leader of the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra (1988-1991). He too won first prizes, at the Hubay and the Zathureczky competitions (1986 and 1988). A founding member of the Keller Quartet, he has additionally made a name for himself as a soloist in the field of Baroque music (also using period instruments)."The Keller Quartet won prizes for their performances and recordings (on Erato) of Bartók's string quartets in the 1990s, including the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik 1996, and the Cannes Classical Award 1997. The Keller Quartet also won the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik 1997 for their ECM New Series Kurtág album, "Musik für Streichinstrumente", which also collected a Diapason d'Or and a Gramophone Awards Nomination.
CD package includes 32 page 3-language booklet with liner notes by Wolfgang Sandner, and cover photography by Péter Nádas