Pentatone is reinventing itself. Once the label for state-of-the-art recorded sound and SACD technology, new management was brought in a couple years ago to take the company in a new direction. They are now branching out into streaming and digital downloads and far, far away from the superiority of SACD. And what discs they do produce now are mostly standard CDs. While I am grateful they're still making some CDs, I am disheartened they seem to have all but abandoned their specialty - the format which put them on the map in the first place and distinguished them from most other labels. And along with it, the pride they once had in producing the best-sounding Classical recordings in the world.
It's a sign of the times I guess. And an attempt to survive. But that doesn't mean I have to agree with it. I have been critical of Pentatone's seemingly misguided decision-making of late and have avoided the label's titles for quite some time. Not necessarily because of the absence of SACD, but of the uninteresting and unappealing repertoire they've been putting out.
Pentatone has a new look these days. Fresh, attractive, enticing. And when I saw this new release of Ligeti's String Quartets, I had to have it. Definitely for the music, but also because its striking cover picture captured my interest. These musicians looking right into the lens of the camera is certainly "eye-catching" and impossible to overlook. I wasn't familiar with Quatuor Diotima, but as I have been extremely impressed lately with two other French string quartets (Quatuor Hanson and Quatuor Van Kuijk), I was very interested to see (hear) what they could do. That this release is a standard-issue stereo CD didn't deter me a bit.
And immediately, I was struck by the clarity of the sound and sheer presence of the musicians. And oh my goodness, this string quartet is fantastic! I love my favorite American string quartets (Dover, Escher, Pacifica) but I am also loving the latest batch of current-day French ones too (named above). And from the get-go, I was impressed by the precision of ensemble and muscular dynamics of the Diotima - in the same ways I have been impressed with the Hanson and Van Kuijk.
The more I listened, the more I was drawn into Ligeti's Bartok-influenced First Quartet. Primarily because it's not all Bartok, as can so often be the case. Oh it definitely lives up to its nickname, "Bartok's 7th", while taking Bartok a giant leap ahead. But as played here, this is most assuredly, unmistakably Ligeti. And that's what makes this recording of it exceptional. And almost unique. The Quatuor Hanson do it as well, on their 2021 Aparte album, "Not All Cats Are Gray", bringing many of the same qualities. Hearing this new one, and instantly being reminded of the Hanson's, I knew I must compare the two recordings back to back.
But before I do, I must say that Pentatone still knows what they're doing in the recording studio. This is one fantastic-sounding CD! Not for an instant did I wish it were SACD. There is stunning focus and presence, especially in pianissimos. While at full fortissimo, the sound is powerful and commanding, yet refined. The booklet shows a picture of the enormous hall used for these recordings, and the spaciousness and immenseness of it are apparent in the recorded sound. The ambience surrounding the musicians is positively alive. The group is intimately placed within it, affording the listener a prime seat near the front. We get all the hall acoustics with the immediacy and "you are there" realness of the musicians sitting right in front of us - without them ever being in the slightest forward or thrust out into the room. It's just natural. And stunningly 3-dimensional. There were even a few instances where I was startled with how real - and present - a 2nd violin or cello line sounded, catching my attention from within the musical fabric. It was as if the player was literally right there in my listening room with me. To hear that kind of spooky realism from a stereo CD was unexpected.
As good as the Quatuor Diotima is - and they are absolutely sensational - comparing them to the Quatuor Hanson on Aparte in the First Quartet reveals the latter to be even more spectacular. But it's a very close race.
First, the recorded sound accounts for the most striking differences. Aparte's sound for the Hanson is more atmospheric, slightly more distanced and spacious. Pentatone's for Diotima is more upfront - the close microphones revealing more texture to string tone and bowing. I had to adjust the volume up 2 notches for the Aparte to compare fairly to the Pentatone. With those technical differences identified and with the volume adjusted accordingly with each back and forth listen, I was able to appreciate subtle musical differences more acutely. While the two performances are strikingly similar, there is just something absolutely incredible - something extraordinary - about the Hansons which is difficult to describe. But I'll try.
It's really two things: dynamics and the vivid characterization of each varying section of music. With the Hanson, there is a startling suddenness of dynamic contrasts in their playing which creates a spellbinding sense of anticipation of what's coming next. This makes for an involvement which draws the listener in, which is unmatched in my experience listening to recordings of string quartet playing. Along with it comes an engaging energy - a propulsion - in their playing of the vigorous sections which is very exciting, and allows them to then create the most mesmerizing, otherworldly atmosphere in the quieter sections which follow. These pronounced contrasts in the music capture the imagination and interest of the listener with riveting results.
The Quatuor Diotima, on the other hand, displays many of these same characteristics, if not quite as strikingly. But they come very close and bring many insights of their own. They too exhibit superb dynamic contrasts and their playing is slightly more nuanced. They excel at texture, color and body of tone - all of which are marvelously alluring. Their performance overall is just as engaging and musically involving as the Hanson's - in slightly different ways, as one would expect.
Generalizations aside, comparing passages back to back is enlightening. In the two opening sections for example, despite the slightly more distant perspective, the Hansons are absolutely gripping - instantly more energetic and decisive. However, the Diotima more closely follow Ligeti's directions in the tempo indications - grazioso (in the Allegro) and capriccioso (in the Vivace). These qualities bring a delectable character to the music that the Hansons don't quite convey. Contrarily, later in the Valse (marked con eleganza and poco capriccioso), the Hansons bring out the capriccioso, while the Diotima are more eleganza. A notable and fascinating difference. (The Hansons are so coquettish here, I almost laughed out loud!) Tempos are very similar throughout.
And so it goes with comparisons. While detecting subtle differences in interpretation, ultimately none of it matters all that much. Both readings are so compelling, deciding which of the two I prefer is impossible. So it may very well come down to couplings for the collector wanting just one. In the case of the Hanson, I wouldn't want to be without their magnificent Dutilleux Ainsi la nuit. But the Diotima couples theirs, perhaps more logically, with Ligeti's Second. For me, duplicating the First, for all the insight and subtle musical differences described above, is worth every penny. The couplings are equally treasurable in both programs and simply provide more music to enjoy.
Getting back to the present recording, we move ahead 15 years to Ligeti's Second Quartet, where his sound has transformed unrecognizably. No longer even resembling anything remotely tonal, we enter the soundworld of Penderecki, whose own second quartet was written the same year as Ligeti's (in 1968). Actual pitches are not particularly important other than to create dissonance or hazy, undulating ambiance. Instead, purely atmospheric sound effects, frenzied indistinct passagework, rhythmic pulses, dynamic extremes and wild bowing effects predominate the piece. However, unlike Penderecki, who relies heavily on interpretation of his score comprised almost entirely of symbols, wavy lines and dictated instructions, Ligeti notates with meticulous precision exactly what he wants. In fact, some pages are absolutely black with dizzying flurries of notes, extreme dynamic indications and prescribed bowing effects. And similar to the Penderecki, the experience is mesmerizing and positively intoxicating. I even envisioned a prescience of what would later become George Crumb's Black Angels, composed just 2 years later. There are many icy effects in the very highest registers, along with unimaginable bowing requirements and extremes of dynamics which portend that work.
One of my favorite sections comes in the 3rd movement (meccanismo di precisione) where Ligeti turns to pizzicato, ingeniously notating each member of the quartet working against each other. With pizzicatos utilized solely as sound-effects, he begins with a series of gentle rhythms deliberately out of sync (4 against 3, 5 against 4, etc.), sounding at first almost like a light rain beginning to fall. The speed and intensity soon increase until a rhythmic frenzy ensues. It's as if a perfectly aligned machine goes off the rails and its mechanical precision becomes broken, eventually slowing it to a halt.
The Presto which follows is furioso indeed (as marked) but also slightly less discordant than usual. It's not pretty by any measure, but it isn't ugly just to be ugly. The rich tonal blend of the Quatuor Diotima actually makes it sound more "chordal" than it usually is. The emphasis here is on brute rhythmic force rather than grisly dissonance.
The final Allegro begins with a hint of tonality (rocking minor thirds in a sort of D# minor) before swirling off into otherworldly atmospheres. If Holst had conceived a final planet in his suite, I could imagine this music becoming the genesis of "Pluto", misting away into the farthest expanse of the universe. What an incredible creation this is.
Purely as a recorded performance in a home listening environment, the dynamic extremes of this piece can present challenges, particularly in those passages which are played so softly - at such a whisper - they are virtually inaudible. Much can be said for the ability to play softly and this group is breathtaking in this regard, especially under the close scrutiny of Pentatone's microphones. But also to their credit, the sound is still perceptible - but just barely. I understand the marking is often ppp, but ultimately just a breath more presence might have been beneficial. But I'm nitpicking; there is no denying the dynamics are stunning as played (and recorded) here. And the Pentatone engineer doesn't give in to the temptation to "help" at all. What is played is what is captured - in all its natural, magnificent glory.
Snuggled in between the two quartets on this CD is a little piece titled, simply, Andante and Allegretto. Written just a couple years before the 1st quartet (in 1950), it comes from his early Hungarian period and is unexpectedly tuneful and eloquent in ways his quartets are not. There is a plaintive simplicity in the opening which eventually expands into brief, richly rhapsodic episodes quite unlike anything I've heard from this composer. And the Allegretto is a jaunty jig - exhibiting true charm, with airy, sparse scoring continuing the simplicity of the Andante. If Ligeti's first quartet sounds like Bartok and his second like Penderecki, this delightful gem sounds like his teacher, Zoltan Kodaly.
If I were to quibble about anything, it would be the placement of this piece in between the two quartets. Musically and chronologically it should have come first, to better illustrate Ligeti's creative progression. But this is easily remedied with the remote control.
In the end, comparing the Quatuor Diotima favorably to the Quatuor Hanson in the First Quartet is very high praise indeed. I can also place them firmly the equal of the Artemis Quartet in the Second (1999, Virgin Records). Virgin provided the Artemis some of their very best recorded sound and this has been my go-to favorite of the piece for ages. It is logically coupled with Ligeti's First as well, to great advantage.
I haven't heard all the available recordings of these works (although there aren't that many), but of the ones I have, many have left me unmoved. Which makes the recordings discussed here completely, thoroughly, absolutely indispensable. Moreover, the excellent booklet with this Pentatone CD is invaluable. It includes thorough notes about the composer and his music, along with an interesting examination of the hall in which the recording was made, and an essay from the musicians themselves - providing a fascinating glimpse into how they approached this music. (I wonder, does all this information somehow come with a digital download of this program?)
I'm pleased to say I'm actually excited about the Pentatone label again.