György KURTÁG (b.1926)
Signs, Games and Messages (1961-in progress) [21:15]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Sonata for Viola Solo (1991-94) [23:52]
Kim Kashkashian (viola)
rec. May 2011, Propstei St. Gerold
ECM NEW SERIES 2240 (476 4729) [55:12]
For all the radicalism espoused in their music, both Kurtág and Ligeti are the natural inheritors of the sonic novelties first explored by their compatriot Bartók. This becomes explicitly the case when the solo viola is involved, where the soundworlds summoned up by both composers, in their different ways, nevertheless contain echoes of the older man's abrasive-folkloric aesthetic.
Ligeti's Viola Sonata was written between 1991 and 1994 and each of the six movements bears a dedication to a friend or colleague: two movements, for instance, are dedicated to the violist Tabea Zimmermann, who recorded it not long after it was completed [Sony Classical SK62309].Here Bartók’s looming shadow is clear, though naturally subsumed into Ligeti's own complex fabric. The way he demands the violist to sustain pitch in the first movement, a Hora Lunga, is fiendish, as the soloist has to bend and twist her way through effortful thickets. Once into the second movement, called Loop, Ligeti writes some jazzy rhythms, before increasing tension in the central movements, two of which are memorial pieces. That is a role for which the viola has always been ideally suited, and the taut yet allusive writing brings forth writing of intense seriousness but brittle impression. It's a testament to Kim Kashkashian's intellectual and digital stamina that attention never flags.
Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages is an ongoing project, largely begun two years before Ligeti's sonata. Though ECM therefore dates the work to 1989 onwards, it seems to have overlooked the fact that the two Jelek pieces (Jelek I and II) were originally composed back in 1961 and have been severally and serially revised. The most recent piece to have been written was composed in 2001 but others were revised in 2005. Beauty for its own sake is something neither composer is concerned about. The earthiness of the Hungarian violin school, and its astringent bowing - courtesy of the retrogressive Jenö Hubay teaching method - has led to a rather brittle intensity to the national sound. But that is precisely what is being channelled here, with a series of inbuilt slides, rich dynamic gradients, folkloric currents, zinging pizzicati, and raw Romanian-Transylvanian evocations. The sinewy, veiny writing evokes, too, fiddle drones, terse memorialisations, and plenty of refractive microtonal incident. The earliest pieces may reflect more Webern than Bartók, but the later ones enshrine the Hungarian inheritance more markedly. I'd especially cite No.10, the Vagdalkozos, as evidence of the living Bartókian tradition - packed into a Webernian 28 seconds, mind. The speech patterns of his homage to John Cage - faltering words - are astutely done, though some may think the maudlin pastiche of a Plaintive Tune that begins the nineteenth piece is somewhat too ripe for comfort. Some sobs can be too throaty, even when proposed by Kurtág.
The terse and dramatic music-making here is expertly realised by Kashkashian, who is fearless in her exploration of its manifold difficulties and rewards.
Jonathan Woolf
Terse and dramatic music-making. 

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