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György Kurtág

From Játékok (Games) and Bach Transcriptions


Márta and György Kurtág: piano (two and four hands)

ECM New Series 1619 CD 453 511-2

Following the completion, in 1968, of his Hungarian cycle, The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza, György Kurtág found himself in the grip of a familiar "compositional paralysis". He had learned to accept such creative "blocks" as facts of life: "The child decides when it wants to be born – not its mother" he has noted, stoically. "In my case, at least, it is the composition that sets the rules for itself, and not the composer. If I knew in what form I wanted to compose, if I knew exactly that a piece should be like this or like that, I wouldn't be able to write it. In this respect I have no technique and no knowledge. The music can only can come into existence when it decides to. And then this Something is cleverer than me, and it finds its own way."

For more than three years, Kurtág waited for the music to come to, or through, him. Then, slowly, Játékok (Games) began to emerge. If the fragmentary nature of these "games" gives notice of their composer's identity, the character of the music is in strong contrast to that of the bleaker pieces ("harrowing" is the favoured critics' term) which preceded them. The Játékok collection was begun with the immediacy and spontaneity of children in mind, its starting point "suggested by the child who forgets himself while he plays; the child for whom the instrument is still a toy." This consideration was reinforced by the suggestion of the younger composers at the Budapest New Music Studio that "serious playfulness" might be a way out of silence. The deceptive "simplicity" of some of the Játékok pieces has occasionally prompted writers to draw comparisons with Bartók's Mikrokosmos. Kurtág, however, has cautioned that the collection "is absolutely not a piano method" but rather a celebration of the essential spirit of music-making. He made this quite clear in a (playful) preface to the score published by Editio Musica Budapest in 1979:

"Pleasure in playing, the joy of movement – daring and if need be fast movement over the entire keyboard right from the first lessons instead of the clumsy groping for keys and the counting of rhythms – all these rather vague ideas lay at the outset of the creation of this collection. Playing – is just playing. It requires a great deal of freedom and initiative from the performer. On no account should the written image be taken seriously – the written image must be taken extremely seriously – the musical process, the quality of sound and silence. We should trust the picture of the printed notes and let it exert its influence upon us. The graphic picture conveys an idea about the arrangement in time of even the most free pieces. We should make use of all that we know and remember of free declamation, folk-music parlando-rubato, of Gregorian chant and of all that improvisational music practice has ever brought forth. Let us tackle bravely even the most difficult task without being afraid of making mistakes: we should try to create valid proportions, unity and continuity out of the long and short values – just for our own pleasure!"Márta and György Kurtág's performance of selected pieces from Játékok, interpersed with Kurtág's moving Bach transcriptions, were almost universally hailed as the highlight of the various retrospective concerts mounted in celebration of the composer's 70th birthday in 1996. In Britain's Independent, Rachel Beckles Wilson spoke of the "extraordinary husband and wife duo ... Teasing, caressing and attacking the piano, they literally play games. Their concert appearances are events to be treasured in the musical life of the century. As a pianist, Kurtág is one of the last of his generation, in whom the spirit of a work is captured in the tiniest gesture or fragment. Interesting to note that in his performing habits, as well as in his composition, he displays affinities with both Robert Schumann (who performed on occasion with Clara) and Béla Bartók (who performed with his wife, Ditta)."

The miniatures that make up Játékok now fill six volumes of published music, with two more volumes in preparation, and their scope and range of reference is encyclopćdic. The present selection embraces tributes to Scarlatti, Stravinsky and Christian Wolff, to Kurtág's composition teacher Ferenc Farkas, to Márta Kurtág, to Ligeti's mother, to Transylvanian folk violinist Mihály Halmágyi, to publisher Alfred Schlee ... A core work in Kurtág's śuvre, Játékok has functioned as "a reservoir of material" that the composer has drawn on in later pieces, and it is "autobiographical" in the sense that it is a compendium of enthusiams. It throws light on the relationships, both musical and personal,which have, in differing measure, inspired the composer. Yet precision is never sacrificed to sentiment; critic Paul Griffiths has suggested that Játékok explores "every mood except the nostalgic". And, as Peter Eötvös notes in the CD booklet, "Kurtág's music has an unusually vital relationship to the living and the dead. The delicate vibrations of the soul and the triviality of the street seem to be closely intertwined. His sound spaces always hold new surprises for the listener ..."

Emerging from this collection of thirty fragments are the Kurtágs' compelling and beautiful four-handed accounts of Bach's Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (the Sonatina from Actus tragicus), the Trio Sonata in E-flat Major I, and O Lamm Gottes unschuldig. As Katharina Weber writes in her impressionistic liner essay "Along the path that leads through this 'composed programme,' one comes upon the Bach transcriptions like the columns of a great cathedral." To which one might add, in the words of Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, "all roads lead back to Bach." The four Bachian "columns", deriving from Kurtág's anthology Transcriptions from Machaut to Bach, comprise roughly a third of the whole programme. His motivation in transcribing this music was uncomplicated: he yearned to play it, and wanted to share his deep feeling for Bach with his listeners and his fellow pianists. The transcriptions remind us that Kurtág, the "avant-gardist" is a composer is steeped in the whole tradition of European music. To quote Eötvös again: "György Kurtág's musical language and style of composition are so personal that anyone who hopes to be able to makes his works speak must be able to speak 'Kurtág'. But that also means to speak 'Bartók', 'Alban Berg', 'Beethoven' ..." And Bach.

***One of Kurtág's Seven Songs op. 22 offers counsel to a snail attempting to climb Mount Fuji, recommending patience and perseverance. These of course have also been Kurtág's watchwords through one of the most singular odysseys in contemporary music. The pace has been slow and gruelling, and the yield – measured in duration, completed works, and discography – sparse, at least when measured against the relative abundance of the output of Kurtág's friend and countryman Ligeti (to say nothing of the emanations from the camps of Cage and Stockhausen – both, incidentally, Kurtág dedicatees). Yet the fact remains that not a note is wasted in Kurtág's music. And alongside his long journey toward a recognition he has not over-eagerly sought – "I have neither profession nor mission to fulfil" – he has also played a major role in shaping the musical thinking of many important contemporary performers. András Schiff, Zoltan Kocsis, Dezso Ranki, the Takacs and Keller string quartets are just a few of the artists who have studied with him.

Yet for many listeners, Kurtág was a major “discovery” only in 1996. In his 70th year, and with major retrospectives in London, Berlin and Budapest focussing attention on his work, the great Hungarian composer was finally welcomed outside the “avant-garde” enclave that had sustained interest in his music down the decades. The reception afforded Musik für Streichinstrumente, with the Keller Quartet, the first ECM album devoted exclusively to his work (following on from the Kurtág/Schumann album Hommage ŕ R. Sch. of '95, with Kim Kashkashian), has helped his cause. Some review excerpts:

Arnold Whittall, Gramophone: “ECM have provided a warm yet spacious acoustic for scores in which every note – and every rest – is laden with expressive weight ... Kurtág’s music is characterized by a concentrated homogeneity, and, above all, by a harmony whose tensions, and stability, are the result of bringing convergence and divergence into confrontation. The result is as memorable as anything being composed today, and these fine recordings are immensely rewarding.” Paul Griffiths, The New York Times: “Mr Kurtág has spent his life packing the utmost expression into the tiniest forms, and the result is music that will open itself endlessly to attention, whether from performers or listeners. It is often magically beautiful. But more than that it is full of meaning ... This record is bound to stimulate interest for Mr Kurtág’s music.” Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times: “Kurtág’s music is his own. Its first distinctive mark is the power it releases from pure isolated sounds ... Its second is its economy ... Every note and, indeed, every silence pulsates with latent energies ...” Hilary Finch, The Times: “ECM has honoured the Hungarian composer in his 70th year with a valuable recital of his music ... The unique treasure of Kurtág’s voice, unwavering, unwasteful and minutely expressive, is distilled in works such as the 12 Mikroludes.” Andrew Clements, BBC Music Magazine: “The music underlines the strength and singlemindedness of Kurtág’s achievement; its debt to Webern, certainly, in the miniaturised forms and the compressed expressivity, but also its emotional power and stark originality. There isn’t a bar here that is not unmistakably the work of a great composer, not a moment when the grip upon every facet of his material weakens ... Urgently recommended.”