Signs, Games & Messages: György Kurtág – 20th April

Photograph of György Kurtág

20 April 2002, Purcell Room, London
Játékok (selection)

György and Márta Kurtág (piano duet)

20 April 2002, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Ejszaka, Reggel
Four Hungarian Folksongs
Mátrai Képek
Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op.18

BBC Singers
Endymion Ensemble conducted by David Jones

20 April 2002, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Kurtág/Kurtág Jnr
Mémoire de Laika [UK premiere]
Omaggio à György Kurtág
Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova, Op.17

Claron McFadden (soprano)
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Sound Intermedia
London Sinfonietta conducted by Markus Stenz

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 April, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room & Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The music of György Kurtág (born 1926) has been a striking presence on the British new-music scene since a Prom performance of the Troussova song-cycle galvanised audiences into awareness some two decades ago. The present festival, given jointly by the South Bank Centre and the Royal Academy of Music, is a culmination in terms of activity since then – during which time Kurtág as both composer and teacher has assumed a far greater profile than would then have been possible.

Fitting that a full day’s worth of performance should begin with a piano-duet recital that Kurtág and his wife Márta have been giving for over a decade, including memorable occasions at the Guildhall School and the Wigmore Hall. Those who attended either of those events, or who possess the ECM disc of their playing (ECM New Series 453 511-2), will have recognised a similar succession of pieces from Kurtág’s vast Játékok (Games) interspersed with unfussy but startlingly perceptive transcriptions of Bach – an intense and thought-provoking recital.

Following this, a well-planned concert by the BBC Singers placing Kurtág in the context of his most important predecessors and contemporary. The potent atmosphere of Ligeti’s Ejszaka (Night) and Reggel (Morning) settings show how far he had personalised his idiom by 1955. From 1930, Bartók’s Four Hungarian Folksongs are a wonderfully diverse and humane collection that only the ’niche’ appeal of the medium has made unfamiliar to the general listener. Kodály’s Este (Evening, 1904) is a tender and poetic evocation from the outset of his composing career. By contrast, the Mátrai Képek [Mátra Pictures] from 1931 have a folk-permeated robustness, though the surprisingly functional harmonisation rather confirm that this is music more engaging to perform then to listen to.

Composed between 1980-94, Songs of Despair and Sorrow is among the major works of Kurtág’s maturity, characteristic in its austere but pungent harmonic language and use of an ensemble including four free-bass accordions and two each of harmoniums and harps. The poems, by six ill-fated Russian poets, speak of alienation and loss, and Kurtág treads a frighteningly precise dividing line between ’setting’ the words and conveying their emotional resonance by more oblique means. The result is a sequence of dark inwardness and unsparing intensity (Ligeti’s Drei Phantasien from 1983 make for an absorbing comparison), given a dedicated reading by the BBC Singers and Endymion Ensemble – the latter’s contribution more a textural enrichment than an autonomous accompaniment.

The London Sinfonietta’s evening concert opened with a translucent account of Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte (1952) – a touchstone of integral serialism, whose atomisation of sound must have struck Kurtág forcibly when studying in Paris during the late 1950s – with John Constable persuasive in the concertante piano part. Then came a brief but striking electronic study from 1990 – Györgys father and son evoking the memory of Laika, the first dog in space, in an ’aide memoire’ of no mean poignancy. Omaggio à György Kurtág (1983/6) is a fine example of the meditative quality of Nono’s music during his last decade of creativity, drawing on the phonemes in the name of the dedicatee – richly intoned by Hilary Summers – as part of a complex soundscape given mobility by the almost intangible diffusion of the electronics. Nono’s late work is among the highpoints of contemporary composition, and a major London retrospective is long overdue.

In retrospect, Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova (1976-9) stands right at the crossroads between the concentration of Kurtág’s earlier vocal settings and the emotional plangency of those that came later. These twenty-one poems by Rimma Dalos speak of a life-defining love affair, at once the purpose for the imagined protagonist’s existence and the cause of its disintegration. The gradual realisation of involvement in the first two settings, and visceral coming-together of the following six, are counterbalanced by the fragmentation of mind and mood in the remaining thirteen texts – suffused with musical allusions that give these recollections an experiential timelessness.

Claron McFadden expressively performed the song-cycle, with the intricate and anarchic ensemble vividly brought to life by Markus Stenz – making a welcome return to the Sinfonietta. Troussova remains as exhilarating and unsettling experience: good that the programme-planners gave listeners a chance to wind down in the company of Stockhausen at his most uninhibited. Post-concert, Simon Haram undertook a half-hour realisation of Spiral (1968), his warm yet articulate saxophone tone melding effortlessly with an ambience of short-wave sounds and subtle diffusion courtesy of Sound Intermedia. This was balm for the soul at its most metaphysical.

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