Ligeti: String Quartets - Barber: Adagio

Keller Quartett


An album that bridges musical worlds, with the Molto Adagio of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet No. 1 offered as tonal terra firma between György Ligeti’s restlessly shifting first and second quartets. Mid-20th century, Barber and Ligeti would have been considered aesthetic opposites. “Ligeti was all about leaving what for Barber was solid home”, Paul Griffiths notes in the liner text. From a contemporary perspective both composers are voices from the past, their present-day relevance emphasised in these committed performances. “Physically actualized in the recording, the music is being all the time remade by the performers searching for what a motif can convey and finding an abundance of expressive contours in Ligeti’s quartets as much as in Barber’s. The gesture of lament is common to both.” The first of the recordings heard on this album was made in 2007 on the first anniversary of Ligeti’s death, Hungary’s foremost string quartet paying tribute to the great innovator of modern Hungarian music. The 2011 recording of the second Ligeti quartet documents also a change in the line-up of András Keller’s ensemble, with Zsófia Környei, widely considered one of the outstanding violinists of her generation, replacing long-serving Keller Quartett member János Pilz.

Ein Album das Brücken zwischen musikalischen Welten baut, indem es das Molto Adagio von Samuel Barbers Streichquartett Nr. 1 als festen tonalen Boden zwischen György Ligetis rastlos bewegtem erstem und zweitem Quartett offeriert. Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts wären Barber und Ligeti noch als ästhetische Gegensätze angesehen worden. "Bei Ligeti ging es genau darum, das hinter sich zu lassen, worin sich Barber noch ganz zuhause fühlte", merkt Paul Griffith in seinen Liner Notes an. Aus der heutigen Perspektive sind beide Komponisten Stimmen aus der Vergangenheit, deren Relevanz für die Gegenwart durch diese engagierten Einspielungen unterstrichen wird.
Die erste der hier zu hörenden Aufnahmen entstand 2007 anlässlich von Ligetis erstem Todestag, als Ungarns wichtigstes Streichquartett dem großen Erneuerer der ungarischen Musik seinen Tribut zollte. Die 2011 entstandene Aufnahme des zweiten Ligeti-Quartetts dokumentiert zugleich einen Wandel in der Besetzung von András Kellers Ensemble, als Zsófia Környei, die als eine der herausragenden Geigerinnen ihrer Generation gilt, das langjährige Quartett-Mitglied János Pilz ersetzte.
Featured Artists Recorded

June 2007 & October 2011, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich

Original Release Date


  • 1String Quartet No. 1 "Métamorphoses nocturnes"
    (György Ligeti)
  • 2String Quartet op. 11: Molto adagio
    (Samuel Barber)
  • String Quartet No. 2
    (György Ligeti)
  • 3I. Allegro nervoso04:50
  • 4II. Sostenuto, molto calmo04:48
  • 5III. Come un meccanismo di precisione03:37
  • 6IV. Presto furioso, brutale, tumultuoso02:09
  • 7V. Allegro con delicatezza - stets sehr mild05:36
The Keller Quartett’s association with ECM has yielded outstanding recordings, among them Bach’s Art of the Fugue, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15 and works by the ensemble’s mentor, György Kurtág. This newest release is another remarkable addition to the Budapest-based group’s discography; the album bridges musical worlds in a way that would have been difficult to imagine just a few decades ago, as it juxtaposes works by two seeming antipodes of 20th-century music: American romanticist Samuel Barber (1910-81) and post-war Hungarian modernist György Ligeti (1923-2006).

Ligeti’s two string quartets are bracing creations of the 1950s and ’60s that – like the quartets of his great precursor, Bartók – are as mysterious as they are earthy. Between these two works appears the slow movement from Barber’s String Quartet of 1936, a slice of tonal terra firma between the restlessly shifting, even dizzying sounds of the Ligeti. Barber later orchestrated this slow movement, turning it into his famous Adagio for Strings – a work that, after its premiere by Toscanini in 1938, would serve as musical catharsis for occasions of great mourning. The aesthetic distance between Barber and Ligeti is compressed not only by the passing of time but by the keen interpretive perceptiveness of the Keller Quartett. The group finds common contours in these pieces, spirits that are kindred. Here, the Ligeti has an expressiveness that is moving; the Barber, played with sparing vibrato, sounds strangely unfamiliar, ghostly, unsettling.

The Keller Quartett made its recording of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 Métamorphoses nocturnes in 2007 on the first anniversary of the composer’s death – Hungary’s foremost string quartet paying tribute to the key innovator of modern Hungarian music. The New York Times has lauded the group’s way with its countryman’s music, singling out “sonic effects that the Keller Quartett illuminated with panache.” The 2011 recording of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2 documents a change in the lineup of violinist András Keller’s ensemble, with Zsófia Környei, widely considered one of the top instrumentalists of her generation, replacing long-serving Keller Quartett member János Pilz as second violinist. Both Ligeti quartets and the Barber Adagio were recorded at Radiostudio DRS in Zurich.

The CD booklet for this album includes an insightful essay by Paul Griffiths. Underscoring the startling juxtaposition of the Ligeti and the Barber, he points out that the Romantic tradition was home for Barber, and home was for him a place to cherish. For Ligeti – whose father and brother were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and whose hometown of Budapest was the scene of a Soviet crackdown in 1956, the year he escaped to the West – “home was a place to leave,” whether that home was geographical or musical. Griffiths writes:

“Ligeti’s distrust or uncertainty, where homes are concerned, he revealed in his attitudes to his own early work, even as those attitudes changed. One relic of his Hungarian-Bartókian-ethnographical past was his string quartet Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953-54), which he took with him when he left Budapest toward the end of 1956, and which had a performance in Vienna a year and a half later… What the Keller Quartett’s performance demonstrates is that this ‘prehistoric’ work (the composer’s own term) is already fully Ligetian in its busy polyphony, its abundance of new colors and its dissatisfaction with received information, even – or especially – the information it was so skillfully incorporating from Hungarian sources, rustic and learned.”

By the time Ligeti wrote his Second String Quartet in early 1968, he felt the need to “redefine” the form, which he did by redefining its sound:

“In particular, harmonics are no longer exceptional; indeed, they are almost the rule, creating a music that glistens. The effort to produce those harmonics, at the level of intonational clarity the piece demands, explains the long gap before the first performance, which the LaSalle Quartet, then the leading exponents of the quartets of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, gave in Baden-Baden on Dec. 14, 1969. Almost half a century later, the work is as near as any quartet of its period to being part of the repertory, which means not only that its technical difficulties have been absorbed but also that it can profit from a performance that, as this one does, brings fresh and keenly expressive life to its sounds, with whistling harmonics of mystery, pain or hilarity and marvelous effects of bending intonation when one instrument slides past another.”

Griffiths goes on to describe the “urgency of gesture” in the Keller Quartett’s performances on this recording, an urgency that can make Barber’s music – though seemingly anachronistic at the time he composed it – sound as timeless, and as restless, as that of Ligeti: “The Barber, needless to say, is a tonal composition, one whose means would have been fully understood half a century before the piece was written. By 1936, though, those means had lost their universality, and the Keller Quartett’s performance speaks of that loss. The almost non-vibrato entry of the first violin removes any clothing of confidence: This is an instrument coming naked into the world, and showing, when increasing its vibration, only a flickering of insecurity. Its steps are tentative. They also lead nowhere, in a lodge-less world, ever returning and ever retracing. When the high point is reached, by all four instruments, it is the discovery of light but of a light that cannot be seen, because we are forced to tighten our eyes against it. And the final chord is more expiration than arrival, more exhaustion than homecoming.”