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The Empire Strikes Forward

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
10/31/2008 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Five Bach Fugues K. 405 – Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546
György Kurtág: Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, Opus 28 – Six Moments musicaux, Opus 44
Franz Schubert: String Quartet in G Major D. 887

Keller Quartet: András Keller, Janós Pilz (Violins), Zoltán Gál (Viola), Judit Szabó (Cello)

The Keller Quartet (© Andrea Felgévi)

The “Empire” of the title obviously is Austro-Hungarian, and the Keller String Quartet enthusiastically divided the Imperial riches equally. From the Austro side came Mozart and Schubert. From the Magyar side came the great octogenarian György Kurtág, as well as the four much younger players of the Keller Quartet themselves.

They were worth missing Greenwich Village’s ghoulish Halloween Parade, even though my reason was more personal. While living in Central Europe for a year, real ghosts were hardly rare. Not so much Budapest as the villages in rural Hungary, and even more frightening, the land of Vlad Tepes, Rumania, where certain areas frightened me more than any clever holiday-makers in New York.

In fact, the Keller Quartet did offer a Halloween surprise at the beginning and the middle. This was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wearing the costume of Herr Johann Sebastian Bach.

Many are the tales told of Mozart “discovering” Bach, of burning oil until the dawn copying out the parts, reveling in the magnificent beauty of Bach. But the two works played by the Keller Quartet weren’t quite right. Mozart had transcribed four pierces from the Well-Tempered Clavier for string quartet, but they were so literal that they seemed more like exercises than real Mozart (or Bach).

The next Mozart was the wonderful Adagio and Fugue, which Mozart arranged from the original two-piano piece. But again this is Mozart in the Kapellmeister’s clothing. A few nice ideas in the Adagio, but a fugue which tries so hard to be “fugue-ish” that it is as strained stained glass window in a modernistic church or the Beatles arranged like a classical string quartet.

The Mozart duo were interspersed between two works by the Rumanian-Hungarian György Kurtág, a composer who only this year is being played with any regularity in New York. But Budapest rarely played Kurtág when I lived there. It was too difficult to take in, there was nothing very “Hungarian” about it. Yet when the Keller Quartet played the pieces, one could see just how unique this composer is.

I was only familiar with his Games played earlier this year, and saw them as interesting fragments, not realizing that Kurtág is basically a fragmentalist. His Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky had no less than 15 movements yet the work lasted barely 12 minutes. The movements had titles which took longer to say than to play (i.e. Canon ŕ 2 (frei, nach op.31/Vl von Webern) Sehr fliessend). But listening carefully, his intricate music made some sense. Granted, he was quoting from works of different composers, most of whom were unknown outside of Webern.

But without knowing this, the fragments weren’t terribly dry. Bach canons were started and finished in a few seconds. He used lovely sounds (like cello as harp), or polyphony which reflected something medieval (though it was never modal).

The second work I did recognize, since he quoted from Games and he actually created some soundscapes rather than the abstractions of the first work. Here were footfalls, a delicious little capriccio, and a beautiful finale called “Les Adieux”. It was supposedly in the manner of Janáček (and I could hear those declarations), but the last sounds were listed pppp in the score, with the second violin actually miming the music while playing nothing at all.

The Keller Quartet played all four works without a break, perhaps hoping to tie together Mozart as Bach, and Kurtág as……well, all I could think of were the silences of Samuel Beckett. But not breaking in this first half was, I feel, a mistake. The music needed meditation and thought, the breaks between mature Kurtág and anachronistic Mozart too sharp.

The second half, though, we could listen to the Keller Quartet itself, playing a Schubert quartet “of heavenly length” with heavenly feeling. The group, which joined together some 20 years ago, still plays with a youthfulness, a vigor, golden tones and a light bright color.

The first half of the concert was adventurous, and they took the technical challenges easily. But the Schubert G Major Quartet, with its moods, from the ethereal opening to the strange middle section of the Andante, and the funky Dvorák -like Trio, is equally challenging, and rarely played.

After the ersatz Mozart and the spasmodic intensity of their Liszt Academy mentor, György Kurtág, the Schubert was like shimmering Renaissance painting, with pain and pleasure and incandescent colors.

Harry Rolnick



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