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Kurtag, Lutoslawki, Gubaidulina by Hartmut Luck
The medium of the String Quartet makes demands upon the creative artist which are unprecedented in musical history: no one individual may be set up as Nietzschean "Superman" over others, either in an artistic or an ideological sense. Nor can different individuals be made to blend into a crowd. The individual is instead to be cultivated in respect of his spirituality, his technical abilities, but also his collective discipline and his consideration for others. This is a task which begins with the act of composing for four voices of equal importance and ends with the interpretation of four individual musicians.
It is well known that classical genres of music have been pronounced dead by some authorities. Nor has the String Quartet been spared from their judgement: its material supposedly spent, its palette exhausted, they concluded that further composition in this direction could be counted only as Eclecticism or Commercialism. These views may well be substantiated by second-or-third-rate compositions and performances. However no composer of the first rank has let himself be thus dissuaded from writing for String Quartet. Each of them has honed his or her compositional tools on the rich traditions of this genre.
The five works assembled on this Compact Disc by Gyorgy Kurtag, Witold Lutoslawski and Sofia Gubai-dulina represent attempts to find, for each composer, their own way forward from the handsomely endowed historical domain of the String Quartet. Remarkably, given the ubiquitous uncertainties of the age in which we live, all of these works display a similarity of approach to this process of seeking and finding: each, in its own way, explores a landscape of sound on the very borders of silence. As Luigi Nono wrote in explanation of one of his works: "There now exists no path but the one we have chosen".
Gyorgy Kurtag (1926)
Gyorgy Kurtag has so far published three contributions to the String Quartet genre. It is significant that he chose the first of these to be his Op. 1, although he was already 33 years old. This marked for Kurtag a fresh departure in a language which, though grounded in Bartok and Webern, is nonetheless astonishingly individual.
This language makes such use of a sort of musical argument derived from Bartok (and through him from Beethoven); we see this in Kurtag's way of thinking periodically, i.e. in sentences and clauses, as it were. Kurtag himself once described this as a process in which "a statement occurs - and is then answered". From Webern, on the other hand, comes the extreme condensing of forms (which at times almost shades away into silence) into minute aphoristic gestures - a sigh, or a joyous breath of musical particles, frozen images: in short, sound-objects rather than sound-processes.
Quartetto per achi op. 1 Streichquartett 
All of Kurtag's Quartets consist of a larger series of very short movements. The Quartet Op. 1 has six movements, which follow one after the other in a type of arch-form. The first movement takes the form of an exposition, and presents a series of terse motifs, each characterised by particular intervals, and by their resulting harmonic structure. The various tonal elements are defined respectively by a major 3rd, minor 2nd, perfect 5th, and sevenths. A short development section leads into a rising harmonic figure, with which this movement all but vanishes into silence. This concise movement, barely a minute long, is balanced by the sixth movement, which forms an Epilogue. Movements II and V correspond to each other by their use repeated ostinato patterns in structure which is at times extremely complex and interwoven. Movements III and IV contain elements of the traditional Scherzo and Slow Movement forms. Whereas the canon at the opening of the third movement refers back to the Beethovenian tradition (or perhaps Bartokian) motivic construction; by eschewing any type of final cadence (and indeed any type of final statement, or affirmation), Kurtag is following in the footsteps of Webern. Equally part of Webern's heritage are the depths of emotion which, though only hinted at, are by no means concealed: no sooner has this emotion touched the listener, than it vanishes discretely.
Hommage a Mihaly Andras - 12 Microludes, op. 13 for String Quartet [1977-78]
The twelve movements of Kurtag's Op. 13 Hommage a Mihaly Andras - 12 Microludes for String Quartet are even shorter than the Quartet Op. 1. In this piece we find a well-defined range of compositional idioms which Kurtag often uses: the chorale-like pieces (here movements I, II, VI, XI), Ostinato figurations (movements III, IX, X) - albeit in a more truncated form than in the first Quartet; and in the fifth movement ("as from afar") a folksong-like nostalgic melody, which is framed by a garland of tiny, aphoristic phrases. Personal statements, made in the form of private confessions, become statements about the world in general; the listener is confronted with a very subjective view of the musical language. It is in this light that Kurtag's many movements which, though not always so titled, pay homage to various individuals, should be understood. The dedicatee of the 12 Microludes is Kurtag's friend and colleague from Budapest, the composer and conductor Andras Mihaly (b. 1917).
Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky, op. 28 for String Quartet [1988-89]
The Officium breve once again typifies many of the elements of Kurtag's compositional style. Firstly his brevity. The piece is made up of fifteen extremely concise movements which together last less than 15 minutes. This brevity is, as we have seen, part of the debt which Kurtag owes to the music of Webern. That debt is explicity aknowledged in Officium breve. Secondly, many of the idioms already mentioned are to be found here: for instance the chorale-like movements (II, IV, VIII, IX) and the ostinato figures (movements IV and especially the maniacally obsessive repetition of the note C in movement XI). Lastly, the unmistakeably personal stamp of the language - a synthesis of twelve-tone music with Hungarian harmonic, melodic and rhythmic motivs (though inspired by Szervanszky's discovery of Webern's music in the 1950's in Hungary, and his pioneering efforts to integrate Webern's twelve-tone system with Hungarian music). This music is in effect an unceasing dialogue with the composer's own past - his friend, his teachers, and the wide range of composers he has admired - like a musical diary. Though Officium breve as whole is dedicated to the memory of Endre (Andrea in Latin) Szervanszky (1911-1977) - who was one of the first composers to encourage Kurtag's own writing - the piece also contains four personal tributes to close friends. These, like photographs on the wall of a study, recall with a brief glimpse the life of a deeply missed friend. An example of this is the tiny four-note fragment for the two violins in the second movement, vaguely recalling Bach's St. John Passion, which honours the memory of Zsolt Baranyi in the recorder player. But it is two direct quotations, from Webern's Cantata Op. 31 and Szervanszky's Serenade for Strings, which dominate the structure of the piece as they gradually emerge into their original forms : Kurtag is symbolically integrating the worlds of both composers.
The piece opens, as befits a Breviary Mass of the Roman Church "Officium breve" with a solemn prayer-like solo for cello. The falling fifth motif is based on the theme quoted from Szervanszky's String Serenade which only emerges in its true colours at the very end of the Quartet. This falling fifth is further transformed into a falling sixth which forms the basis of movement III, which, as simple concise duo for viola and cello, blends Szervanszky's melody with the style of Webern. This movement appears in a four-part variation as n° # XII. Both movements III and XII are transcribed from Kurtag's Jatekok (games) for piano, where they appear as homages to Szervanszky. Movement V is Kurtag's own version of the harmonies of the Canon from Webern's Cantata Op. 31. In movement VII the Webern quotation is more direct; but this time the inner voices are transformed. A complete transcription of the Canon (transposed up a tone) appears in movement X, as the centrepiece of the Quartet. From here to the end of the work, the Szervanszky quotation begins to dominate the music: first through No XII, already mentioned, and then by a pair of almost unrecognisable transformations (movements XIII and XIV) in which the spirit of Beethoven ("es muss sein") is evoked. The climax of these transformations, and of the piece, is the quotation of the opening of the larghetto from Szervanszky's Serenade for Strings. Though obviously and beautifully back in the tonal world, the tanta-lisingly incomplete quotation is not merely intended as a romantically serene coda. It is presented, after a long and circuitous approach, as if it were a sacred relic, or ruined monument: an invitation to remember, to reflect, to meditate. In other words to do in music, and in a secular context, what would be fitting and proper for a short requiem mass - an "Officium breve".
Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1993) String Quartet 
Lutoslawski published his only String Quartet at the age of 51. However in this one piece, he manages to achieve an exemplary marriage of compositional process to the possibilities of the musical forces available. This compositional process involves a technique of finite, or controlled, aleatoricism (i.e. random choice of musical material). Lutoslawski's exclusive use of this technique was first inspired by hearing the music of John Cage, and dates from his work Jeux Venitiens, published in 1961. The technique is applied in the String Quartet as follows. For a given duration (which may be the time taken to play a page of music, or seconds, or minutes), each instrument is assigned precisely formulated material, which the performer may play freely as to rhythm and tempo: or even repeat several times, should the need arise, However the instruments remain uncoordinated with each other, and are forbidden to produce artificially any such coordination. For this reason, there exists no score of the piece in the traditional sense, with the four voices arranged vertically on the page. Instead there are four "blocks" - one could actually speak of them of them as "building blocks", containing musical material. Each instrument enlarges upon this material until an agreed point (marked in all four parts) is reached; at which all players pass on to the next "building block" of material. This transition is marked by the appearance of a particular figuration in one of the voices: the interpreter concerned then gives a signal to his colleagues which may be either audible or visible. Lutoslawski's String Quartet falls into two parts: the Introductory Movement and the Main Movement the latter following the former without a pause. The first movement begins with a series of motifs on the first violin, made up mostly of isolated individual notes, which seem almost to be feeling their way forward. These are then developed in thirteen sections of varying sound-textures. Each section is divided from the next by a motif which always marks a break or caesura in the music. The caesura motif is formed from repeated 32nd notes in which all players play a Cat various octaves. This motif disappears in the Main Movement, which proceeds without interruption, but which allows a number of sections of contrasting character to succeed each other. After the more or less "metred" (as opposed to random) exposition in the first movement, the second movement presents by contrast music of an unsettled and dramatic character. This includes an initial section in which all instruments pluck the string - pizzicato. The entire section is marked furioso by the composer. There follows a catastrophic climax which breaks off abruptly into a chorale section. This in turn leads to a passage of elegiacally funereal music - funebre -, until the work closes with an Epilogue. Unlike the funebre section, the Epilogue is formed from disintegrating, fluttering, increasingly solitary single notes. Though dramatically contrasting, this series of moods is not intended to tell a story as such, or to follow a "programme": the piece is to be listened to as music purely on its own terms. The general features of the piece, i.e. the overall structure, are precisely defined; precisely defined too, are the particular details of motif, figuration and their harmonic and contrapuntal ramifications. In fact each note is carefully indicated; and the order of the sections within the structure may not be changed. However there remains possible with in this solid gramework a variable field of constantly shifting sounds and harmonies, which the composer has anticipated and arranged accordingly. These may of course occur quite differently from interpretation to interpretation. In fact, the String Quartet like many of his other works, can be described in Lutoslawski's own words "Sculpture in a liquid material"
Sofia Gubaidulina (1931) String Quartet No 2 
This, Sofia Gubaidulina's second String Quartet, is a short work written in a single movement. The sound-world used is very particular, individual, and implicitly ethereal, without formal divisions or dramatic climaxes. It begins with a sustained G which rises to the surface of our perception from the very depths of inaudibility. This note is then "meditated" upon, altered by changes in the intensity of vibrato and by different bowing articulations. These appear like cautions steps towards the inner world of the sounds themselves; gossamer-light yet extravagant garlands of notes are twirled playfully around the sustained G. Occasionally from this mainly static texture emerges a short motif formed from a minor second. Finally a new texture is reached, which is characterised by sustained chords, glissandi, and pizzicato fifths. From these slowly shifting notes, which melt into and are superimposed upon the each other, tinted with iridescent natural and artifical harmonics, there gradually develops a well defined upward movement. The music as it were rises until the final chord; which floats and soars even as it dies away in pianissimo. And it is this effect, whereby the music almost finds its apotheosis back into silence, having been born there, which, perhaps more than any other feature, is shared by the music of all of the composers on this recording.
original German text by Harmut Luck (translated and adapted by David Alberman)