The Strad Issue: January 2011
Description: A winning exploration of the work of a master miniaturist
Musicians: Athena Quartet
Composer: Kurtág

György Kurtág’s intricately crafted and condensed works for string quartet reflect his debt to Webern: each small gesture is heavy with intent. The works span from his First Quartet, written in 1959, to the Arioso of 2009, and they are given exquisitely detailed readings here by the Athena Quartet. Every phrase is sculpted with infinite care, and the sheer brio of the performances ensures that each work feels lithe and fresh. The recording is topped and tailed with readings of the recent Arioso, a wandering, compelling and strange work – played firstly with wooden mutes, and then in an icily brittle version with metallic mutes. Kurtág has apparently sanctioned both versions.

The Hommage Á  Mihály András (1977–8) has moments of real magic in its twelve movements, in particular the gorgeously serene fifth movement, as does the Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky (1988–9), with its quotations of Webern and Szervanszky himself. It is described in the accompanying notes as a ‘miniature requiem’, and the Athena players imbue it with huge emotional power and tension, from the incredibly still opening, through the aggressive clusters of the fourth movement and the spiky, wrong-footed waltz of the tenth, to the sorrowful song of the finale. The disc is quite an intense listen in one sitting, but the Athena’s artful colourations really draw the listener in.

Catherine Nelson