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György KURTÁG: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza Op. 7
A "concerto" for soprano and piano
Rachel Beckles Willson

188 pp.
CD recording included

This excellent book is a major contribution to Kurtág studies. For specialists it is illuminating as it presents many perceptive observations on the composer and his work. Ms Willson, perhaps the best know Kurtág scholar, knows the composer, his work and his milieu extremely well. Indeed, Kurtág himself co-operated in the writing of this book. It is both a first-hand source, as well as unusually well informed and objective. For the non-specialist, too, for it provides plenty of background and also gives a careful analysis of how the composition works musically. Ms Willson's analysis of the work is thought through clearly and logically set out, each detail well supported. This book is a shining example of how music analysis can be written. It spurs readers to listen with focused attention, so they too can develop an in-depth appreciation.

To cap all this, the book includes a CD recording of the concerto, which is not easily available. The recording is an integral part of the book, and is on its own merits superb. It is performed by Erika Sziklay and Lóránt Szucs who gave the premiere. They speak about the experience in the book

Kurtág, like Ligeti, was shaped by his upbringing in war-torn Romania and Hungary. Like other penurious composers, he wrote political music to get by. Nonetheless, his Korean Cantata, for baritone solo and choir, reflected his own feelings. After the Uprising of 1956, Kurtág suffered a crisis of self belief, which led him to review his life and art. He was permitted a sojourn in Paris. He learned Webern, Messiaen and Milhaud, and worked with the art psychologist Marianne Stein. Willson explains Kurtágs return to Hungary, and how his music developed a distinct, aphoristic style under the conservative regime. The Sayings is a work crucial to his creative growth. "It was the first explicit formulation of his most basic question", says Willson, "namely how one can face one's mistakes and reorient to one's true path".

In the sixteenth century, Hungary was divided, part ruled by the Habsburgs, part by the Turks and part caught up in civil war. Péter Bornemisza was a Protestant preacher who responded to his turbulent times by becoming a political activist. He was imprisoned and went into hiding, unlike Kurtág who was a public figure, but reticent.

Willson's detailed commentary on the music is a tour de force, the central feature of the whole book. The analysis is lucid and comprehensive, reinforced by many quotations from the score. The cycle starts with "Confession" setting out the basic premise that God sends temptations, which may be beyond resistance. The music is so densely scored that it seems almost impossible to play. "How can a five-part monotone canonic texture speak in five autonomous voices?" It forces the performers to achieve effects almost beyond their abilities, since "the struggle towards the unattainable is of defining character" to the piece.

The Devil appears in the ten parts of "Sin". In the first three parts the voice paints the Devil as a seductive tempter, but soon the vocal line breaks into tiny syllabic utterances. The piano follows with strictly symmetrical sets of chords. The disintegration of order in the voice enhances text lines like "so man might recognize his own inner ingrained corruption". The third part of the concerto is titled "Death". A Bulgarian Dance of Death contrasts with a fugue on piano of extraordinary complexity, and later, a funeral procession is evoked. Then, a change in mood, with "Spring". The soprano basks in the faith that spring will bring rejuvenation. Willson describes masterfully, though, how the music hints at more equivocal undercurrents.

A further chapter charts the changes in responses to the piece since its first performance in 1968. Learning how different people reacted to this music over time is in itself useful in coming to understand it.

By training, Willson is a musician as well as a musicologist, her insights honed by an understanding of performance issues. Hence she discusses the music with some of its leading performers. Erika Siklay, the soprano who was first to realise the piece, speaks about musical life in Hungary in the 1960s, when "new" music could only be heard in illegal gatherings. Lóránt Szucs recounts that the Sayings was still being amended while rehearsals for the recording began. Both described rehearsals with the composer as gruelling. Pierre-Laurent Aimard owns a score with numerous annotations, and discussed them with Willson. He describes in graphic terms how he feels when preparing the piece for performance. "Every time you feel this motif, you should feel the knife carving your flesh". As Willson explains, Kurtág's method is to create within the performer "experiences that he himself sees as bringing the music to life."

Willson's deep feeling for the music, the work of the composer and the cultural background is quite moving. I listened repeatedly to the CD before reading the book, and was formulating a response on instinctive terms. Nonetheless, reading Willson advanced my appreciation immeasurably. This is not the easiest music to absorb, so it is a pleasure to explore it guided by the enthusiasm of a learned Kurtág scholar and by performers like Aimard. Willson's sensitivity and understanding is a model of musical analysis and depth. She has certainly made me feel close to this work and develop my feelings.

A bibliography and translation, written for performance in English, make this a excellent reference book. It would have helped, though to give the original Hungarian text. It would be interesting, too, to hear what Willson says about how the Sayings fit in with Kurtág's later compositions.

Anne Ozorio


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