Quatuor Béla on the Early Metamorphosis of György Ligeti

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Métamorphoses nocturnes—"Night Metamorphoses"—is a particularly appropriate title for the French quartet Quatuor Béla's latest recording of chamber music by the legendary Hungarian composer György Ligeti. It's the title of the composer's first string quartet, and it also highlights the kinetic restlessness and the early development of one of the 20th century's most influential compositional voices.

The presence of Béla Bartók—Ligeti's early hero and one of the few "modern" composers whose scores were accessible to a young composer operating within the radio-jammed borders of Communist Hungary—is all over the 17-movement String Quartet No. 1. Composed from 1953-54, the music is marked by jarring folk rhythms, a neurotic adherence to counterpoint and episodes of solitude and violence. But Ligeti's own voice is omnipresent, as are the seeds of what would later become known as his "micropolyphony"—dense flurries of activity that result in highly complex and kinetic frenzied clusters.

String Quartet No. 1 explores extremes of dynamics, range and timbre from wrenching sul ponticello scrapes to contrapuntal clouds of barely audible, scurrying harmonics. As the title "Night metamorposes" implies, it's also music of constant change. Despite Ligeti's limited access to music from outside Hungary's borders, there's a surprising wealth of references, including waltzes, gypsy music and jazz, as well as nods to Stravinsky and Berg. Quatuor Béla captures the youthful vigor of Ligeti (he was 31-32) and his torment (he'd spent time in a forced labor camp and both his brother and his parents had been shipped to concentration camps).

The Second String Quartet, from 1968, was composed over a decade after the first quartet and Ligeti's flight from Hungary. The music is somewhat more restrained and refined: the nervous pizzicato strings of the third movement seem to reflect Steve Reich's phase experiments from around the same period as well as Ligeti's own 1962 Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. The ensemble is in astounding command of the music, retaining an extraordinary on-edge energy even during quiet moments (the dynamic the most defines the composition).

The album closes with the earliest composition represented on the disc—the Sonata for Solo Cello. Written from 1948-1953, the piece stands among Ligeti's most lyrical compositions and it has a student quality, particularly in the references to Bach as well as Bartók and Kodály. Cellist Luc Dedeuil's virtuosic delivery is energetic and playful, highlighting the early voice of a brilliant composer on the verge of becoming one of the century's most formidable figures.

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