György Ligeti left two proper string quartets; No. 1, subtitled "Metamorphoses nocturnes," was written in 1953-1954 (a little after the Six Bagatelles for wind quintet), but not heard until 1957 when performed by the Ramor Quartet in Vienna. Ligeti's Quartet No. 1 would sit around another three decades before getting a second hearing, but since then it has been recorded many times and comes close to entering the standard quartet literature. No. 2 is already part of it, a very famous work belonging fully to Ligeti's mature period; it was commissioned by the LaSalle Quartet and first heard in Baden-Baden in 1969. The folksy, almost romantic Andante and Allegretto, elsewhere called "Two Movements for String Quartet," are very early Ligeti works dating from 1950; they have been recorded only once before, by the Arditti Quartet, in the first volume of the Ligeti Edition as begun by Sony while the composer still lived.
This Naxos release, Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, is the debut recording of the Parker Quartet, a group founded in 2002 and based in Boston; it is named after the Omni Parker House, a Boston landmark that has been in operation since 1855. One might wonder why this comparatively newly minted group would take on such a tough assignment as Ligeti's quartet literature for its first recording and it is mainly because it is a fearless, well-disciplined, and supremely confident quartet. Ligeti's music seems to appeal to the group's youthful impetuousness and the Parker Quartet has more than an ample amount of muscle, self control, and sensitivity to have mastered these highly dynamic and challenging twentieth century quartets. The Second Quartet is particularly difficult; there is a spot in the first movement Allegro nervoso where the quartet is already very busy playing rapid figures at a sub-pianissimo level and has to switch -- at a mere bar line's notice -- to fortissimo without essentially changing what notes are being played. The Parker Quartet performs this audio equivalent to a cinematic jump cut on a hairpin, and throughout the music is completely well elucidated with no fuss, no muss, expert precision, and a considerable flair for drama. The Parker Quartet brings the same level of care and attention to everything on the program, even the simpler and more modestly stated Andante and Allegretto that conclude the album. While not recorded as often as, say, Beethoven's late cycle of quartets, the full-length Ligeti quartets have gotten plenty of attention on disc, yet this Naxos release with the Parker Quartet seems just as good if not better than any of the other recordings that include both quartets. Doubtless the Parker Quartet is a group to keep an ear out for.