The Strad Issue: January 2013
Description: Revelatory performances of jarringly juxtaposed repertoire
Musicians: Keller Quartet
Composer: Ligeti, Barber

It’s hard to know what to admire most about this remarkable new disc – the bravery of the strange but compelling juxtaposition of repertoire; the technical brilliance of the playing; or the profound, considered musicality of the Keller players’ performances. Admittedly, they’re a bit cool at times, but the power and commitment of their accounts sweep away any niggling concerns.

There’s a sense of fantasy and vivid characterisation right from the start of their Ligeti First Quartet (heavily indebted to Bartók), and a glassy purity to their sound that ensures each instrument is heard in individual clarity – helped by ECM’s glowingly transparent recording. The work’s slow central section has an eerie stillness; the quick waltz is nimble and witty; and the closing web of harmonic glissandos is truly magical.

They rise magnificently to the Second Quartet’s weird, sometimes theatrical demands, too, negotiating Ligeti’s musical jokes with dry wit. The notorious ticking, irrational rhythms of the pizzicato third movement are just one highlight – crisp, dry and effortlessly precise, they’re also lithely shaped to highlight the movement’s dramatic arc.

The famous Barber Adagio is deliciously jarring in between the two Ligeti quartets, especially in the Keller’s brisk, unsentimental performance, light on vibrato but high on ringing purity. It’s as if they’ve stripped the piece of its mawkishness and returned it to the simple, moving statement that it is. All in all, a disc of revelations.

Clip: Ligeti - String Quartet no.1

David Kettle