Signs, Games & Messages: György Kurtág – 23rd April

Photograph of György Kurtág

Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 (Unfinished)
Movement for viola and orchestra
Messages, Op.34
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (Part 3)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Anu Komsi (soprano)
Rachel Shannon (soprano)
Gaynor Keeble (contralto)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
William Dazeley (baritone)
Stephen Gadd (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 April, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A concert of incompleteness and delayed endings – incidentally marking Sakari Oramo’s debut at the Royal Festival Hall, conducting the Orchestra whose reputation he has consolidated and heightened over the past four seasons.

Schubert’s ’Unfinished’ received a fine if unexceptionable reading, lucidly played and with a sure understanding of the tempo relationships between its two movements (surely as much a factor in the symphony’s non-completion as any other?). Phrasing was a trifle brusque in the ’Allegro moderato’ and Oramo failed to get the requisite sense of anxiety from the second theme of the ’Andante con moto’. Yet the tonal response and ensemble of the CBSO was never in doubt.

The incompleteness of György Kurtág’s music was demonstrated in two ways. In the case of the Movement, this is all he now acknowledges of a viola concerto completed in 1954, some years before his studies in Paris provoked a complete reorientation of his compositional thinking. Musically, this 12-minute piece brings a Beethovenian breadth to bear on its moderately Bartókian harmonic language, employing a modified sonata groundplan in an arch-like accumulation then dispersal of tension. The substantial orchestra is kept busy – though not to the detriment of the solo part, projected here with lyrical intensity by Tabea Zimmermann.

With Messages for Orchestra, we encounter one of several of Kurtág’s ’works in progress’. These six (so far) cryptic musical tributes to friends and colleagues are scored with Webernesque precision for a large orchestra, though a choir takes over in the fifth piece – a poignant setting of a Cornish grave inscription which may yet function as a focal point for the whole collection. As always with Kurtág, economy of means only emphasises acuteness of emotion, and the intensity generated in these nine minutes alone makes one intrigued to know how the sequence will be prolonged. The performance confirmed that Oramo is naturally attuned to the thought processes of this singular composer.

After the interval, completion in the guise of ’Part Three’ – actually the first to be written – of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Composed between 1844-53, this large-scale oratorio embodies a response to Goethe’s visionary drama that strikingly unites Enlightenment certainty and Romantic soul-searching. The text chosen for the final part closely parallels that set by Mahler as Part Two of his Eighth Symphony, though the restraint of Schumann’s demonstrates altogether different priorities. What comes through is the humanity and emotional intimacy of his response; the upward progression to the ’eternal feminine’ achieved more by clarity of message than the intensifying of emotion.

This was something that the generally excellent solo singers conveyed in no small measure. Unfair as it might seem to single out names, Anu Komsi coped ably with some demanding and high-lying vocal lines, while Mark Padmore’s unmannered delivery and clarity of diction were a joy throughout. Oramo obtained an animated response from choir and orchestra, just occasionally too rushed for the good of phrasing but with evident belief in this music – so often maligned – to make one hope he will perform the whole work before too long.

  • The CBSO return for a second RFH Kurtág concert this Thursday, 2 May at 7.30 – Stele and Four Capriccios, Bartók and Stravinsky
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content