György KURTÁG (b.1946) and Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Play With Infinity: Extracts from Játékok (1979) and Átiratok (Transcriptions, 1973): Play with Infinity [0.55] and [0.52]; Das Alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV 614 [1.56]; Hommage á Soprani [2.04]; O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWV deest [3.33]; and [3.19] Bells (Hommage ŕ Stravinsky) [1.15]; Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn BWV 601[1.18]; Sirató [0.49] Aus tiefer Not schrei; ’ich zu dir BWV 687 [4.17]; Study to Pilinszky’s Hölderlin’ [1.12]; Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her BWV 711 [2.11]; Furious Chorale [0.54]; Gott, durch deine Güte BWV 600[1.06]; Hommage ŕ Halmágyi Mihály [1.19]; Alle Menschen müssen sterben BWV 643[1.00] ; Les Adieux (in Janáček’s manier) [2.00]; Christe dy Lamm Gottes BWV 619 [1.02]; Hommage ŕ JSB [1.01]; Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Hebot BWV 635 [0.51]; Responsorium (To Sir William Glock) [2.14]; Pilinsky János: Keringo (for Zoltan Kocsis) [1.07] and [1.05]; Christum wir sollen loben schon BWV 611[2.08]; Botladozva (In memoriam Marianne Reismann) [2.01]; Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV 633 [1.15]; Aus der Ferne [1.54]; In Memoriam Sebök György [2.41]; Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit-Sonatina BWV [2.15]
Jean Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planés (piano duet)
rec. 15-18 July 2010, church of Saint Germain de Talloires (Haute Savoie). DDD
HORTUS 082 [50.10]
I have in front of me a copy of volume three of György Kurtág’s Játékok. Its not a great deal of use to me for this volume comprises almost entirely solo pieces. Kurtág has now produced eight volumes of these piano pieces (translated ‘Plays and Games’). Nevertheless it does have as its opening gambit the piece, Play with Infinity, offered in its solo and piano duet versions. My volume also has as a piano solo a crawling chromatic piece called Sirató. The CD includes a massive arrangement of the piece for the duet team. These books can be thought of as a modern Mikrokosmos. Indeed one piece is entitled ‘Double notes’ and is described as “an addition to Mikrokosmos”. These volumes are endlessly fascinating examples of modern piano repertoire and notational techniques which, although challenging, are partially didactic.
The accompanying booklet notes are rather waffly but Jean-Marc Chouvel does astutely remark “Teaching is very important for the Hungarian musician whose pianistic oeuvre makes explicit reference to that aspect of his work”. In my volume in the daunting section ‘Key to the signs used’, Kurtag writes “We should trust the picture of the printed notes and let it exert its influence upon us.” He also adds “Pleasure is playing - the joy of movement”. Dureau and Planés understand this and comment that Kurtág “testifies to a continual, intimate relationship with his instrument: setting aside virtuosity, the piano becomes the medium of a fragile and precious poetic thought”. This implies that each of Kurtág’s pieces is very brief, often less than a minute – which they are; just a thought, then passed over.
What makes this CD even more striking is that Kurtág’s ‘thoughts’ are interwoven, often alternating with his arrangements of Bach chorales from the ‘Orgelbuchlein’ for piano duet. They’re not just twiddlings but almost recompositions and re-orchestrations. What seems initially to be stylistically far too disparate - Kurtág-Bach – blend into an hypnotic whole. This means that you could play the entire disc, which is not that long, right through without a break.
Kurtág’s pieces are often mysterious, harmonically atonal and searching. They use the entire keyboard range with all types of sounds and techniques. Tempos are often slow as they can be, quite often, in the Bach chorales. There is however enough contrast in other ways to retain attention.
Kurtág’s Bach arrangements are intriguing. ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’ is highlighted by Chouvel. He remarks that Kurtág “goes so far as to imitate the original registration, doubling the upper voice, pianissimo and at the upper fifth, as would be a nazard stop.” He adds that “the effect is striking”. Bach is in fact an ideal bedfellow because he was also often didactic. Take as examples: ‘The Art of Fugue’, the countless different forms of fugal writing in the Preludes and Fugues and arguably the Orgelbuchlein itself with its differing approaches to chorale harmonisation.
Many of these pieces are dedicated to various friends and musicians from the past. There is a Homage to J.S.B. in which something of the essence of the dedicatee is captured. My volume has dedications also to Scarlatti and Bartók. The disc features homages to Soproni, a complex piece of Webernesque counterpoint, another to Stravinsky called Bells, which is quite striking in sonority. There is also one to the Hungarian poet Pilinszky.
As Dureau and Planés admit, they also wanted to repeat certain pieces during the disc. Their placement would therefore put them into a different context. This they do with the opening track Play with Infinity and Bach’s O Lamm Gottes mentioned above.
It is not necessary to find fault with the performances or the recording. Nothing should put you off if you fancy delving into the unique world of Kurtag’s extraordinary imagination.

Gary Higginson
Nothing should put you off if you fancy delving into the unique world of Kurtag’s extraordinary imagination.