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Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week: Kurtág string quartets

By (October 28, 2016) No Comment

kurtagGyörgy Kurtág: Complete string quartets
(ATMA Classique)

**** (4 of 5)

Some of my least endurable musical moments have been spent trapped in a small hall listening to a new piece by Kurtág, the venerable, post-tonal Hungarian aphorist. Making sense of seemingly unrelated sounds, and clusters of sound, is made all the most uncomfortable by the occasional squeaks that emanate from dedicated musicians struggling with the composer’s demands. The relief is that Kurtág always writes short. The pain tends to be over in ten minutes.

So it was with trepidation that I put on the Molinari Quartet’s album of Kurtág’s complete string quartets – a total of 50 minutes – and with astonishment that I found how great the difference is between hearing them trapped in a concert hall, or roaming at home. Stripped of the sense of imprisonment, the quartets create an ambience akin to Gregorian chant – calming, devout and intermittently inspired. You check in and check out at will.

This is perfect chillout music – from the first quartet, written under Webern’s shadow in 1959 to the recent Moments musicaux that take their form and spirit, perhaps, from Schubert. Yes, there are still squeaky-door moments, but under the fingers of this superb quartet you know the squeaks are intended rather than accidental. The music, especially in the lower strings, becomes at times profoundly moving.

Chillout with Kurtág? I tested the notion against the original ambient composer, Erik Satie, in a new RCA release by Olga Scheps. Back to back, the ascetic modernist won hands down. Nothing eases my brain so gently and effectively as the crafted, thoughtful noises of our own time.

Both the players and the label on this album are Canadian. Many of the best musical things are nowadays.

Norman Lebrecht has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc, writes a monthly essay for Standpoint magazine and is writing two more books.