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Aldeburgh Festival 2008 (4 and 5): Bach, Kurtág György Kurtág, Márta Kurtág, (piano), Hiromi Kikuchi (violin), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), The Maltings, Snape, Aldeburgh. 19 and 20.06.2008 (AO)

He writes mathematically, in the way Bach writes mathematically, but with great emotion”, said Philip Langridge recently about Harrison Birtwistle, but much the same applies too, to György Kurtág, whose music is even more precise and aphoristic. This pair of concerts placed Bach and Kurtág in beautiful counterpoise.  Birtwistle’s transcriptions of Bach will be heard on 27th June. Aldeburgh programming is elegant in the way good mathematics can be elegant.

Kurtág’s HiPartita for solo violin might sound nothing like Bach at first, yet it has the purity we associate with Bach.  It was written specially for Hiromi Kikuchi, and has become her signature.  She’s played it so often that it seems to flow out of her like a natural force.  I heard her play it in November 2006, also with the Kurtàg’s in attendance. Yet it’s not an easy piece.  Kurtág sets challenges in each of the eight movements.  Many different techniques are used.  One moment Kikuchi does an exporessive  ”Paganini” flourish, the next she’s making barely audible, growling, rustling whispers scraping bow against wood. The score is spread out over eleven stands on the platform,  and Kikuchi moves between them as she plays.  This highlights the unity behind the different parts. One section is called Orebasìa, an ancient Greek ceremonial procession. Another is......perpetuum mobile.....  Thus HiPartita functions as nonstop movement, which shifts and changes, but stays afloat, as if Kikuchi were juggling balls in the air.  In many ways it’s akin to the Ligeti Piano Concerto which famously is supposed to levitate like a helicopter when played well. (See reviewHiPartita is also a solo instrument precursor to Kurtág’s Six moments musicaux for string quartet, which is almost a symphony by Kurtág standards, where disparate movements are balanced in almost classical unity.  It would be interesting to hear them together one day.

György and Márta Kurtág had been sitting in the audience during earlier concerts, unnoticed by many, but this was their turn on stage.  Márta is a very good pianist indeed, but the reason it’s so important to hear the Kurtágs play is because their performance embodies a lot about the Kurtág ethos of simplicity and understatement.  They sit before a humble upright piano, just as if they were at home, in private, playing for their own enjoyment.  One key to appreciating Kurtág’s miniatures is to understand how personal and intimate they are.  Hence, no grand concert piano, and backs to the audience.  This is private music, which listeners can join in as part of the family, so to speak.  The Játékok series contains many small pieces written over a 23 year period.  The idea of music as a formal, monumental structure doesn’t apply.  Játékok means ”games”.  Kurtág is playing with new ideas, letting the pieces fall together in different ways, like a child playing with building bricks.  The extracts chosen for this performance  were nicely varied. Sometimes both played in a straightforward duo fashion. Sometimes their arms cross diagonally so each is playing at the opposite end of the keyboard.  Among the selections tonight were hree Bach transcriptions, balanced by canons and the  Apocryphal hymn in the style of Alfred Schnitttke. Kurtág is playing with things familiar in unfamiliar ways, but always with a sense of proportion and scale. The sounds are Kurtág, but the spirit isn’t so very far from Bach.

Die Kunst der Fuge was created for private exploration : Bach, like Kurtág, ”playing” with ideas on his keyboard, away from public pressure and expectations.   As Aimard says in an interview with Marc Ernesti, it is ”a demanding piece, it is not pleasant, not ’effectful’, not a commercialised showpiece”.  Like Játékok it’s not meant for flashy surface display. Thus, for his imtriguing concert, the following evening,  Aimard chose 12 of the Contrapunctus segments from Die Kunst der Fuge and interleaved them with carefully chosen extracts from Játékok  Aimard says”The Kurtág pieces open up a symmetry in the music similar to the rectus and inversus in Bach, almost like a mirror game”.   He puts the fanfare in Contrapuntus with the fanfare in Játékok’s For Dòra, and places the Játékok Hommage à Paganini between Contrapunctus X and IX.  Aimard also included Fuga a 3 Soggeti.  Heard with Kurtàg, the unfinished character of the piece sound remarkably open ended and modern, like a Kurtàg fragment.  The selection was so well planned that it’s probably worth reproducing at home to better appreciate what the combinations highlight.  Aimard has recently recorded Die Kunst der Fuge for Deitsche Grammophon, and the whole concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio3 on 27th June, and for a week online and on demand.  The concert played by the Kurtàg’s is being broadcast on 28th June and will also be online for a week. There should be no excuses for not listening !

Anne Ozorio

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