HAYDN; LIGETI; BRAHMS String Quartets
Comparisons may be of academic interest for this Hungarian-themed album, but Ligeti’s first work of early maturity receives an outrageously fearless performance, even placed against no less technically gifted but more experienced ensembles. In more recent recordings by younger ensembles such as the Casals and Parker quartets, the work’s explicitly Bartókian heritage still casts a long shadow. The Dudok Quartet’s gift is to hear Ligeti in Ligeti even when he couldn’t hear it in himself: in the manically laughing slides of the capriccioso idea near the opening, in the cloudy glass plates (at 10'20" – the album’s one deficiency is a shortage of cue points) of what passes for a slow movement, in the absurdist coda’s motivic disintegration. The First Quartet is Tom and Jerry in black and white, the Second is their Technicolor reincarnation, but the Dudok give us remastered Ligeti, blacker and whiter than ever before.
From its false-bottomed opening, Haydn’s Op 54 No 2 is even more prodigally original, and perhaps even Hans Keller would be satisfied with the ‘invention without concession’ displayed by the members of this young Dutch quartet, and especially its leader Judith van Driel. The slow movement is a tour de force of controlled improvisation, grave and focused yet fulfilling Keller’s demand that it serve as a prelude to the Minuet, which is sufficiently measured that the keening drama of the Trio does not entirely come out of the blue. The pure tone chosen for the slow finale’s unison opening enhances its unsettling impact, and only after the furious presto interruption do they allow vibrato to spread pathos through the coda.
The Brahms arrangements are well done by the leader and cellist, though they still subtract more than they add to the originals. The decay afforded by a well-struck key and the sustain pedal is not within a string player’s vocabulary and yet the dying fall of each piece here demands it. Even so, the portamento and rubato here are as lightly worn as is their absence elsewhere. Not since the Elias Quartet’s Mendelssohn (ASV, now Alto, 5/07) has the debut disc of a quartet kept inviting me back to think more and listen harder.