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Kurtag: Complete Works For String Quartet / Athena Quartet

Kurtag / Athena Quartet
Release Date: 06/28/2011 
Label:  Neos   Catalog #: 11033   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



KURTÁG Arioso-Hommage à Walter Levin 85. 6 Moments musicaux. Hommage à Jacob Obrecht. Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky. Aus der Ferne V. Hommage à Mihály András. Aus der Ferne III. String Quartet No. 1 Athena Qrt NEOS 11033 8.572714 (70:18)


I have known György Kurtág’s (b.1926) music for about three decades now, and my admiration has only increased. Almost alone among his contemporaries, Kurtág Read more has mined the vein opened up by the Second Viennese School in their middle, free-atonal period. This is a world of ambiguity, allusion, illusion, expressive extremes, and profound concision. And so, I have to ask, why doesn’t Kurtág sound like a generic knockoff of Webern? By all rights he should.


I think there are a couple of answers. One is simply that he has an absolutely immaculate ear. Every single note and gesture sounds deeply heard, and essential to whatever is the musical argument of the moment, no matter how fleeting. His little piece in honor of the 16th-century master Obrecht (2004–05) is a case in point, featuring skittering, glassy texture, a Bartókian counterpoint that rises to a true and yet gentle intensity, and finally a reference to the source itself, all done so seamlessly as to never sound like easy pastiche.


The other reason is that Kurtág does certain things consistently that are different from Webern and the Schoenberg of the microscopic op. 19 piano pieces. He’s far more willing to use extended ostinati that arrest time, and he’s more open to extended lyrical utterance—the opening Arioso (2009) has a subtitle, “in Alban Berg’s manner,” and one definitely hears the connection. The sense of the fantastic is constantly in play, and it’s no coincidence that one of Kurtág’s other favorite composers is Schumann. That influence helps to explain the moments that leap out (almost inappropriately) and just as quickly subside, and the deep emotionalism of so much of this music, despite its perfect surface. And no composer is able to make the fragment more meaningful, suggesting vast musical spaces just behind the gate of the sounds we hear in the Kurtágian moment.


The 1959 string quartet comes closest to the Webernian model, though Kurtág’s personality is already strongly asserting itself. Of the other sets, I find the 6 Moments musicaux (2005) to be some of the most imaginative and rewarding, but each piece is full of subtle, unnerving charms (the one in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky (1988–89) is the longest, with corresponding shortest fragments). The Arioso is performed at the beginning and end, first with wooden and then with metallic mutes, showing how a subtle change of color can make a world of difference. Both of the Aus der Ferne pieces (“From Afar,” 1991 and 1999) are haunting essays on harmonies floating above a lonely pizzicato cello.


These pieces go down easy, as there’s so much color and variety from one to another. But they probably are best served by listening to just one at a time, with suitable silent gestation in between, they’re so information- and expression-rich. Four of the eight are recorded premieres, so it supersedes the competition on repertoire. The performances by the Athena Quartet (Saskia Viersen and Margherita Biederbick, violin; Miriam Götting, viola; Kathrin Bogensberger, cello) are out of this world, as is the recorded sound. This is a strong Want List contender early in the season.


FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

1. Arioso "Hommage ŕ Walter Levin 85" by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Written: 2009 
Notes: wooden mutes 
2. Moments musicaux (6) for String Quartet, Op. 44 by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Written: 2005 
3. Hommage ŕ Jacob Obrecht by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Written: 2004-2005 
4. Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky, Op. 28 by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1988-1989; Hungary 
5. Aus der Ferne V by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Written: 1999 
6. Quartet for Strings, Op. 13 "Hommage ŕ Mihály András" by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977-1978 
7. Quartet for Strings, Op. 1 by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959; Hungary 
8. Hommage ŕ Mihály András, Op. 13 "12 Microludes for String Quartet" by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977 
9. Aus der Ferne III by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1991 
10. Arioso "Hommage ŕ Walter Levin 85" by György Kurtág
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Athena Quartet
Written: 2009 
Notes: metallic mutes 

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