Thursday, October 30,2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.
The Keller String Quartet from Budapest asked the audience to hold their applause until after they had played all four compositions of the first half of their concert at Music Toronto. In this way, they fashioned the classic legacy of Bach, Haydn and Mozart into a setting for the newly classic music of their countryman and mentor, Gyorgy Kurtag.
The first piece we held our applause for was five fugues from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” transcribed and arranged for four voices by Mozart (K.405) in 1781, six months after Haydn published the string quartets of his revolutionary Op. 33.
What Mozart had learned from transcribing Bach was how to use the colours and registration of the cello, violins and viola to distinguish separate voices and their interplay. What Mozart learned from Haydn was to how to write string quartets that give independence and equal standing to all four instruments, and to allow development of motifs throughout the whole work. These learnings were reflected in Mozart’s three great symphonies, 39,40 and 14, and in “Adagio and Fugue”(K.546), the second Mozart composition we were asked not to applaud.
All of these learnings were manifested in a masterly way by this string quartet. The Kellers established, individuated and blended their voices by performing the Bach altered and updated by Mozart. Then these same Keller voices segued into the first Kurtag composition, “Oficium Breve, Op. 28”, (1988-89). The continuity of voices and the characteristic intensity of the Keller’s style bridged the 300 year gap between compositions and allowed the Kurtag to sound a lot like the Bach/Mozart somewhat deconstructed.
Kurtag is a miniaturist: many of the fifteen movements of this allusive requiem are a slightly more or less than a minute long. The utterances are slow, quiet, sometimes whispering, sometimes grating, often discordant, sometimes harmonious, always suspended in pregnant spaces. Some of the later movements develop Bartokian themes that sway in fugal dialogue like waves breaking on a shore, or rise in jagged flights like lines of bees hunting. It is as if, to paraphrase Paul Griffiths, Kurtag’s world of feeling starts with nothing, opens with a few quick strokes and finds its way to something utterly simple, utterly trustworthy.
From there to Mozart’s “Adagio and Fugue”, it is as if the sounds the Keller had been making in Kurtag’s fragments became connected into a dark, dramatic, richly textured fugal space of bold, solid and articulated strokes. Then, out of the Mozart came the assertive, rhythmic polyphonic energies of Kurtag’s “Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 44” (2005). This work is also subtly elegiac, but playful as well, in which the players exhibit an astonishing display of timing, vehemence and control. The piece releases sweetly into space and energy, and the audience let go the pent-up applause for what seemed like a single, extended work.
After intermission, the Keller retook traditional ground and treated the audience to pure pleasure: Schubert’s fifteenth and final string quartet in G, D 887. One could hear in this music a fear and trembling, a relentless anxiety, a hectic flush of energy that the Keller articulate forcefully. In particular, I applaud the cello of Judit Szabo in the first theme of the opening allegro for being without sentiment but still heartbreaking. Her cello also dominates the second movement and figures prominently in the Scherzo and Finale. One wonders why she has not become one of the greatest stars of the concert stage.
As if against the hectic deathward push of his diseased flesh, Schubert interposes in all movements passages of surpassing gentleness and cheer. The music of the Finale contains an impudent, carefree tarantella that recalls to mind Mozart and the happy shenanigans of Figaro. The strength of Schubert flows through this trustworthy quartet in a triumph of music making.