Keller Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Currently celebrating his 80th-birthday year, Gyorgy Kurtag, the Hungarian composer, is perhaps contemporary music's nearest equivalent to such writers as Samuel Beckett or Paul Celan.

It is not so much his musical language that startles. Just as those writers use ordinary words, so Kurtag resorts to the stock angles and frissons of modernism, his music often sounding like Bartok recomposed by Webern. Rather, it is the constant struggle to wrest meaningful utterance from engulfing despair. Most of his output comes in tiny, spasmodic patches of intense expression, his longer works comprising successions of such miniatures in which silences are as fraught as notes.

Two of these longer structures - Microludes (1977-8) and Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervansky (1988-9) - formed the pillars of this concert in the Wigmore's current Kurtag 80th Birthday Celebration. The performers were the Keller Quartet, one of many ensembles fostered by Kurtag himself during his years as much-respected chamber-music coach at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.

Like Kurtag, their leader Andras Keller evidently accords an almost mystical status to Bach's The Art of Fugue. So the many Kurtag miniatures in the programme were interspersed, without breaks for applause, with quartet transcriptions of movements from the Bach. The latter items were delivered in a variety of manners, leading up to an almost Romantic account, with flaring vibrato, of "Contrapunctus XI".

Placed in this context, the seemingly starved, broken textures of Kurtag's pieces proved to harbour many fleeting moments of Bach-like counterpoint or poetic euphony - such as the hint of distant polyphony that emerges out of the dry tappings and rustlings of "Aus der Ferne III" (1986), from Signs, Games and Messages.

For their penultimate item, the Kellers launched gravely into the triple-fugue, "Contrapunctus XVIII", dropping to a hush at the point where Bach introduced the notes of his name, and breaking off just as his manuscript does. After this, the few fragile bars of high chiming chords of Kurtag's Ligatura for two violins died away with real poignancy.