Kurtág 80th-Birthday Celebration: Thomas Adès and Friends

Three Old Inscriptions, Op.25
Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs, Op.37a
Signs, Games and Messages – Doodles (for András Milhály)
Játékok – Prelude and Chorale
Attila József Fragments, Op.20
Six Moments Musicaux, Op.44
Five Eliot Landscapes, Op.1
Arcadiana, Op.12

Valdine Anderson (soprano)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Corin Long (double bass)
Thomas Adès (piano)
Keller Quartet [András Keller & János Pilz (violins), Zoltán Gál (viola) & Judit Szabó (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 September, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

György Kurtág’s 70th and 75th birthdays were notably well marked in London, and his 80th looks to be similarly well celebrated – not least at the Wigmore Hall, with this concert being the first of three over the next two months. Moreover, the programme – devised by Thomas Adès – gave a real insight into one of the most singular musical minds in the last half-century; a composer for whom brevity of time-span equates with intensity of expression to a decisive and unnerving degree.

Vocal works are the core of Kurtág’s output. Valdine Anderson brought whimsical pathos to “Three Old Inscriptions” (1987), potently encompassing the mundane and the profound, then found the right emotional focus for the diverse sentiment of “Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs” (1998); an aphoristic diary of feeling crying out to be given such continuity as it is by Kurtág, with Corin Long an always-inventive partner on double bass. Even so, her finest performance was that of “Attila József Fragments” (1981): as much abstract mono-drama as solo song-cycle, the piece ranges across its composer’s musical idiom from the previous two decades – but distilled to the point at which form and expression become dissolved into sound. Those having first encountered it through the remarkable Adrienne Csengary had no need to make allowance here, with Anderson’s grasp as complete as her commitment was undoubted: a memorable performance by any standards.

Kurtág’s instrumental music was equally well represented here, with the brief but heady spatial effect of ‘Doodles (for András Milhály)’ representing the ongoing miscellany that is Signs, Games and Messages as vividly as did ‘Prelude and Chorale’ – the one elegantly melting into the other in Thomas Adès’s hands – from the even more extensive series of piano volumes comprising Játékok. Most significant, however, was the opportunity to hear Six Moments Musicaux (1995) – the most recent of the composer’s works for string quartet (Kurtág having ‘avoided’ the medium per se as intently as he has made it his own) with, again, an unerring continuity in the way each brace of pieces (their relative fast-slow succession suggestingBerg’s Lyric Suite as an oblique model) intensifies upon the previous one such that the work reaches a culmination the more inevitable for its absence of any tangible climax. The Keller Quartet has made Kurtág’s quartet music its own during recent years, and the authority evinced here was undoubted.

It was logical that Adès be represented as composer, and the evening provided a welcome chance to revisit two of his most durable earlier pieces. Coming at the end of the concert, “Five Eliot Landscapes” (1990) was a reminder not just of his precocious talent, but more importantly of the way in which he adapted the genre of the song-cycle by rendering its familiar components from an unexpected – and thereby personal – angle. Adès’s liquid pianism melded perfectly with Anderson’s singing, and it was hardly the latter’s fault if precious little of the texts could be heard (contractual reasons presumably preventing their reprinting). Arcadiana (1994) – finely rendered by the Keller prior to the interval – is one of Adès’s finest achievements so far: an affecting sequence of ‘idylls’, ranging from the capricious to the contemplative, that evoke the musical past with no wanton nostalgia. Very different from the re-creative past in Kurtág, the older composer might yet acknowledge a commonality of purpose.

  • Further Kurtág concerts on 26 October & 9 November
  • Wigmore Hall

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