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György KURTÁG (b.1926)
1. … concertante … op.42 [22:34]
2. Zwiegespräch (jointly composed with György Kurtág Jr.) [19:09]
3. Hipartita, op. 43 [29:34]
4. Excerpts from Játékok (Games) and Transcriptions [32:02]
Hiromi Kikuchi (violin) (1,3)
Ken Hakii (viola) (1)
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra/Zoltán Kocsis (1)
Keller Quartet: András Keller, János Pilz, Zoltán Gál, Judit Szabó (2)
Márta and György Kurtág (upright piano with supersordino) (4)
rec. Kurtág 80 Festival Budapest, 15-19 Feb 2006 (1-3); 17 Nov 2006, Konzerthaus Vienna, Mozartsaal (4)
Budapest Music Centre BMC CD129 [41:18 + 62:11]
Experience Classicsonline

For many years György Kurtág worked as a teacher in Budapest – relative obscurity when compared with his current status as one of the most significant of contemporary composers. During Hungary’s communist period he composed little, but with the easing of the political situation he began to produce the sequence of works for which he is now most widely known. They include Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova, Scenes from a Novel, … quasi una fantasia …, Stele and Hommage ŕ Robert Schumann.
Only in the 1980s did Kurtág’s music begin to be more widely disseminated. He has never been as prolific as his compatriot Ligeti, and this is possibly a major reason why he has been overshadowed. Other reasons include the shortage of works in orthodox, user-friendly genres such as concerto or sonata, or orchestral compositions. Many of his chamber works require unorthodox combinations, sometimes including instruments such as mouth organ, cimbalom and mandolin.
Spare, elliptical, austere, Kurtág’s aphoristic pieces or movements, in which no note is wasted or insignificant, create an impact and resonance out of all proportion to their brevity. After listening to one of his typically concentrated works, one may well find much other contemporary music long-winded and self-indulgent. The Boosey and Hawkes “Composer Page” aptly describes Kurtág: “Heir to Webernian expressionism, favouring concentrated miniatures exploring a wide range of human emotions.”
In February 2006 Kurtág’s 80th birthday was celebrated with a five-day series of concerts in Budapest Palace of Arts and Music Academy. Three of the performances on these CDs are taken from this festival - three major works all completed within the last few years. CD2 is completed by a selection from an ongoing collection of piano studies.
…concertante… op. 42 is for violin, viola and large orchestra. This compelling work has a remarkably wide expressive range. This embraces strange stillness - as at the opening, marked “senza tempo” and again in the epilogue – and explosive but short-lived violence. There is also propulsive energy (track 2), writing of mysterious chorale-like character (track 3), and music of abrupt, declamatory manner (“recitativo”, track 4).
Zwiegespräch (1999-2006) is a collaboration between the composer and his son, who is himself in control of the synthesizer in this recording. This piece also embraces a wide range of expression, the synthesizer contributing its own considerable variety of noises including bell-sounds, dripping water and bird-cries. One section, Tempest, is a solo for the synthesizer. Maybe the string quartet sounds a little overwhelmed in the most animated of the synthesizer passages, but perhaps this is the whole point. György Jr. writes in the CD notes that Zwiegespräch “changes from performance to performance: today there isn’t one note in common with those played at the first concert”(!). For this recording even the order of movements was altered. This music constantly plays on the listener’s imagination. None of the five main sections outstays its welcome, and we are left with the haunting stillness of the final Solace.
On the second CD Hipartita (the “hi” being taken from the soloist’s name) is a half-hour piece, completed in 2004, which deserves to become a mainstay of the contemporary solo violin repertoire. Any extended work for unaccompanied string instrument runs the risk of exhausting the listener’s concentration, but Kurtág has proved time and again that he is not only a miniaturist but also a composer able to sustain a longer span.
Of the eight sections the third, entitled Mountain-climbing, is appropriately dogged in character. Perhaps this is the first time that this painstaking activity has been evoked in music? The seventh section is a perpetuum mobile, while the slow final Heimweh is a tribute to composer/conductor Péter Eötvös. Ranging in mood from meditative to playful and quirky, Hipartita is played with ease and lyricism by Hiromi Kikuchi.
A selection of pieces from Játékok (Games) ends the second CD, taken from a farewell concert in Vienna in November 2006. This is a long-running project consisting of pieces for piano or piano-duet, many lasting about a minute or less. Titles include Dirge, Knots, An apocryphal hymn (In the style of Alfred Schnittke) and Fugitive thoughts about the Alberti bass. Six of the pieces here recorded are played by the composer, four by his wife (they have been married 60 years), and nine by both players at one keyboard. It should be noted that, as the three encores are repeats of pieces already played, we are not in fact provided with as many items as it may appear. Also, applause takes up about half of the 4:20 listed for track 24. This same track consists of the loveliest of three Bach transcriptions which are interspersed with original pieces.
The recording is up to BMC’s usual high standard. Anyone mystified by the piano sound on CD 2 should read the notes – “My father has composed on this instrument muted with supersordino (as he called it) for many years, and has grown so fond of its incomparable, silky tone …” As for the rest of the notes, I offer a further quote from the composer’s son – “Our aim was not to make the listener believe he is present at the concert, but somehow through the sound also to convey the things he cannot see … if we cannot see the musician, everything changes, even the proportion of the notes.” (!) Suffice it to say that the microphones have been used like cameras, moving towards, or retreating from, the musicians. However, perhaps it is advisable to ignore this and concentrate on these outstanding performances of some of the most riveting music composed in the last thirty-forty years.
Philip Borg-Wheeler


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