Years have passed since György Kurtág’s last ECM recording, which incorporated his “Jatékok (Games)” and “Bach Transcriptions”, made with Kurtág and wife Márta playing piano together.
The birth of this newest album has been an arduous one, with the composer intensely and meticulously involved at every step of the way. And if “Games” are at the centre of this recording, too, they are often life-and-death games - echoing the endgame humours of Samuel Beckett’s universe and the anguish of Hölderlin - in a programme in which two song cycles are bridged by the “Signs, Games and Messages” for strings. (As England’s The Independent has observed, “György Kurtág never writes a note lacking musical intent, and never writes a note with which he has not lived and suffered.”) “Kurtág’s described all three cycles as “Works In Progress” and their formal boundaries are particularly fluid, even within the context of an oeuvre in which labyrinths of connecting threads (musical, literary, philosophical, epistolary) have become the norm.
Kurtág has consistently revised these works, reordered the movements, added new movements, set others aside, both for concert performances and in the realization of this album. Although “Signs, Games and Messages” includes among its numerous dedicatees an “Hommage ŕ John Cage”, the tight control that Kurtág exerts over every grain of sound, every gesture, sigh and silence, makes his work the converse of “indeterminate”. And yet the way the pieces move, as chains of interlinked miniatures (only one of the 59 tracks here has a duration of more than three minutes), conveys a sense of living tissue as well as an “improvisational” freshness. “A whole world of expression and suggestion” is indeed “packed into these exquisite, crystalline forms” (The Guardian).
The album begins with six sections from the “Hölderlin-Gesänge” primarily for solo baritone, whose solitude is broken in one section (“Gestalt und Geist”) by the arrival – in this version - of trombone and tuba. As Thomas Bösche notes in the CD booklet: “Various attempts have been made to describe Kurtág’s handling of literary texts, for there is a secret here that is difficult to decode. In his settings, Kurtág penetrates deep into the often hermetic texts and arrives at a clarity and simplicity born of that depth. Kurtág’s world - as Walter Benjamin said of Franz Kafka – is the theatre of life. The poetic utterance is transformed into musical gestures and positioned on an imaginary stage. With hubris – ruinous human arrogance – as a central motif in Hölderlin’s late work, and equally in Kurtág’s settings, the fortissimo outburst of “Verwegner! möchtest von Angesicht zu Angesicht/ Die Seele sehn” “Reckless! wanting to see the soul/ Face to face” in “Gestalt und Geist” becomes the cycle’s centre of gravity.” Concluding the “Hölderlin-Gesänge” is a setting of Paul Celan’s famous “Tübingen, Janner” which the poet wrote after visiting the town where Hölderlin spent the final years of his life.
“...pas ŕ pas – nulle part” is a set of 22 Samuel Beckett poems plus Beckett translations of the maxims of Sebastien Chamfort (1712-1794), a pioneering misanthropic aphorist whose caustic wit was predestined to strike a chord with the expatriate Irishman. As for Beckett and Kurtág, the Hungarian composer fell under the dramatist’s spell in 1957 when a performance of “Endgame” in Paris seemed to address his own existential despair. Of course these artists share both bleakness and humanity as well an acute sense of the futility and the necessity of artistic utterance in troubled times. The Kurtág settings are of poems Beckett wrote in French and published in 1978 under the title "Mirlintonnades". Jotted down originally on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, beer mats and whiskey bottle labels, the function of this “French doggerel” – to quote Beckett – was to keep despondency at bay in everyday life.
Thomas Bösche: “On the occasion of György Kurtág’s seventieth birthday, Hungarian author György Dalos was more than justified in asking: how can a composer who has concentrated exclusively on the essentials throughout his career possibly arrive at a late style marked by greater concentration and attention to the essentials. That even more intense concentration and radicalisation of what has always been inherent to Kurtág’s work is possible becomes eminently clear in the composer’s Hölderlin and Beckett settings. If ever justice has been done to Arnold Schoenberg’s dictum that music should not be decorative, but truthful, then it is here, where differentiation and intimacy are coupled with outward austerity.”
Of “Signs, Games and Messages” itself, music historian and former Kurtág pupil Rachel Beckles Willson has written: “One can hardly call this work a ‘string trio’: it is more like a conversation between three players, a conversation which sometimes attains synthesis and is sometimes dysfunctional or abstruse. The movements are short. They were often composed in one sweep on a single afternoon, in response to news, a mood or a thought. In their resultant abundance they can have been compared to diary entries.”
Kurtág was born at Lugos (Lugoj in Romania) on 19 February 1926. From 1940 he took piano lessons from Magda Kardos and studied composition with Max Eisikovits in Timisoara. Moving to Budapest, he enrolled at the Academy of Music in 1946 where his teachers included Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas (composition), Pál Kadosa (piano) and Leó Weiner (chamber music).
In 1957-58 Kurtág studied in Paris with Marianne Stein and attended the courses of Messiaen and Milhaud. As a result, he rethought his ideas on composition and marked the first work he wrote after his return to Budapest, a string quartet, as his opus 1.
In 1958-63 Kurtág worked as a répétiteur with the Béla Bartók Music Secondary School in Budapest. In 1960-80 he was répétiteur with soloists of the National Philharmonia. From 1967 he was assistant to Pál Kadosa at the Academy of Music, and the following year he was appointed professor of chamber music. He held this post until his retirement in 1986 and subsequently continued to teach at the Academy until 1993.
With increased freedom of movement in the 1990s he has worked increasingly outside Hungary (as composer in residence with the Berlin Philharmonic), with the Vienna Konzerthaus, in the Netherlands, and in Paris at the invitation of the Ensemble InterContemporain, Cité de la Musique and the Festival d’Automne. He has won many awards, including the Ernst von Siemens Prize.
Music of György Kurtág on ECM includes Játékok, with György and Márta Kurtág, and Musik für Streichinstrumente with the Keller Quartet. Compositions by Kurtág are also heard on two albums with Kim Kashkashian: Hommage ŕ R. Sch. (which brings together compositions of Kurtág and Robert Schumann), and Bartók/Eötvös/Kurtág which includes the early “Movement for Viola and Orchestra”. Kurtág’s “Ligatura-Message to Frances Marie”, meanwhile, was appended to András Keller and Janos Pilz’s recent account of the Bartók violin duos, and Kurtágian fragments also occur in Bruno Ganz’s reading of the poetry of George Seferis on “Wenn Wasser wäre”.
Further New Series recordings of the music of Kurtág are in preparation.
The most exacting of composers, György Kurtág asks a great deal of his interpreters. Performance of the pieces on the Signs, Games and Messages CD requires both rigorous discipline and selflessness, and Kurt Widmer, Mircea Ardeleanu and the Orlando Trio give everything to this project.
Swiss baritone Kurt Widmer has toured the world as a recitalist and with conductors including Rafael Frühbeck de Bourgos, Michael Gielen, Paul Sacher, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Horst Stein, and Jesus Lopez Cobos, and sings regularly at major European festivals. His repertoire extends from Machaut to contemporary music, and he has recorded widely. Widmer is also well-known for his teaching activities, both at the Basel Music Academy and at his international master classes.
Percussionist Mircea Ardeleanu was born in Romania. A staunch advocate of contemporary music, he has given world premiere performances in collaboration with composers including Stockhausen, Xenakis, Kurtág, Eötvös and many others. He has taught percussion at the Darmstadt Summer Courses and given master classes worldwide.
Transylvanian cellist Stefan Metz founded the Orlando Quartet – of which the Orlando Trio is an outgrowth – in the Netherlands in 1976. As artistic director of the Orlando Festival, he commissioned composers including Schnittke, Keuris, Szollosy and Constant to write new music which was premiered at the festival. Metz’s chamber music partners have included Heinz Holliger, Nobuko Imai, Gidon Kremer, Menehem Pressler, Heinrich Schiff, the Borodin Quartet and members of the Amadeus Quartet.
Violinist Hiromi Kikuchi was born in Tokyo. At the age of ten she won the National Competition of Japan and has since won many international awards. She has worked closely with György Kurtág for many years and he continues to compose new music for her. She will perform his new concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Copenhagen, the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Paris and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London.
Violist Ken Hakii was born in Tokyo. He has been principal violist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1992. Hakii has performed at many international music festivals, under conductors including Riccardo Chailly, Mariss Jansons and Wolfgang Sawallisch.