After being so thoroughly bowled over by the Quatuor Hanson's new CD (2021, "Not All Cats Are Grey", Aparte Records - please see my full review elsewhere on this blog), I decided to get to know the Ligeti Metamorphoses a little better. I have a couple recordings of it on my shelves, neither of which is in any way memorable, so I ordered two recordings I thought I'd like: the Arditti String Quartet on SONY (1996) and the Artemis Quartet on Virgin (2000). I purposely chose recordings which offer both of Ligeti's Quartets, as I am not familiar at all with his Second, and the Hansons only offer the First.
In a nutshell, compared to the Hansons, Metamorphoses hardly sounds like the same piece as played by these other two string quartets.
The Arditti on SONY smooth over the rough edges, bringing a polished touch of romanticism to this music - with refined dynamics and articulation. And SONY solidifies the approach with sound that is lush, smooth and beautiful - and most certainly too relaxed. And not nearly as interesting or involving as it should be. I don't even hear much of the Bartok element in the piece here. So this one simply won't do. This recording is for those who don't think they like Ligeti but might be persuaded otherwise because it's so affable.
The Artemis are much better, helped by Virgin's excellent recorded sound, which is colorful, crisply detailed and impressively 3-dimensional. There is a remarkable sense of realism here that the SONY, as richly upholstered as it is, manages to stifle for the Arditti. Also, here is Bartok on full display. As a matter of fact, it sounds more like Bartok than Ligeti! So it's still not quite right. But certainly very close - and really quite excellent by any measure.
But going back to the Hansons, I am once again bowled over by how they infuse life into the piece, immersing the listener into the experience as never before. And it is positively gripping. How do they do it? With a propulsive energy and incredible dynamic range. And with muscular bowed articulation. Plus unimagined variety of tonal color and vivid characterization of each sharply contrasted section of the piece. And, yet, with all these elements firmly in place, what makes this performance so completely mesmerizing is how utterly musical it is. It's not just notes on the page; it's not just random sounds. It's music. And once again I declare their playing of it absolutely, positively stunning. The Hansons really understand this piece, and with it, a dazzling sense of new discovery emerges - inviting the listener to experience it anew. And Aparte's recorded sound is simply some of the best ever afforded a string quartet.
This is string quartet playing which is simply unmatched. And never before experienced. It is absolutely incredible.
The glory of the alternative recordings, of course, is the inclusion of Ligeti's 2nd Quartet as well. (The Hansons give us Dutilleux and Bartok instead). And the Artemis on Virgin are splendid in it. Their dynamic range, in particular, is very impressive here, without ever turning ugly in those more difficult passages. While I can hope that the Hansons will one day record it as well, for now I'm completely happy with it on this Virgin CD, especially given its excellent recorded sound.