Signs, Games & Messages: György Kurtág – 2nd May

Photograph of György Kurtág

Stele, Op.33
Four Capriccios, Op.9
Piano Concerto No.3
The Firebird – Suite (1945)

Zoltón Kocsis (piano)
Anu Komsi (soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 May, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

For the second of their two Kurtág-related concerts, Sakari Oramo and the CBSO opened with what is – so far – the only large-scale orchestral work of Kurtág’s maturity. Completed in 1994, at the end of his first residency with the Berlin Philharmonic, Stele is in no sense a dissolution of Kurtág’s musical focus: rather the tendency to build paragraphs of cumulative intensity from brief, transient motifs is carried directly into the medium of the expanded symphony orchestra – Wagner tubas not excepted.

In essence, the work is about the aural effect, and the emotional affect, of the opening-out of a chord – across the harmonic spectrum (microtonal shifts in evidence) and across the orchestral texture. The first section creates an unsettled atmosphere, its successor diversifying into elaborate layers of activity, before a statement of the ’ur-motif’ for the whole orchestra. The final section transforms a stoical piano piece, In memoriam András Mihály, into a shuddering processional – implacable in its remorseless onward motion towards extinction. At 16 minutes, Oramo’s was an expansive account, but given his control over the music’s unfolding, not to mention the dedication of the CBSO’s response, it might have lasted 16 seconds in ’musical time’. Lucky the Birmingham audience was treated to a second performance of this powerful work.

And the Four Capriccios, which opened the second half made for an ideal, and typically Kurtág-ian ’foil’. Written around 1971, but revised in the 1980s and ’ 90s before finally being published, these settings of pithy but emotionally – or rather sexually – explosive poems by István Bálint represent the violent and subversive qualities of Kurtág’s song-writing to perfection. The deftly-constructed ensemble, cimbalom and percussion prominent, came through with startling clarity; an astringently expressive context for the soprano’s heightened response – here the excellent Anu Komsi. This was quite a discovery, even for those who reckon on knowing their Kurtág.

As to the remainder of the programme, Zoltón Kocsis tackled Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto with a combination of rhythmic robustness and, in the tender slow movement, a refreshing absence of sentimentality. Kocsis’s clipped phrasing in the opening ’Allegretto’ may have deprived the movement of its Mozartian finesse, but there was little here not implied by the phrase markings in the score, while the contrapuntal interplay of the ’Finale’ gained considerably from the driving intensity generated between soloist and orchestra. The central ’night music’ section of the ’Andante’ could have had a degree more flexibility in its scintillating forward motion, but the precision and delicacy of Kocsis’s pianism held the attention throughout.

The concert closed with Stravinsky’s 1945 adaptation of The Firebird. Odd to think that this final reworking, intended as definitive, has fared poorly in the concert hall in comparison with the less comprehensive 1919 suite or – more recently – the complete 1910 ballet. But then, the composer’s recourse to a generally utilitarian re-scoring, and his ironing out of so much rhythmic and expressive subtlety in the music (as in his 1947 rethink of Petrushka) has in reality little to commend it. A pity for the choice of numbers is ideal and the telescoping between them judiciously made. Save for some untidiness of ensemble in the ’Infernal Dance’, Oramo directed a fluent and attentive performance, its overall lack of impact simply the outcome of his following of the 1945 score to the letter. Worth reviving, but a similar selection from the original ballet would surely prove the ideal compromise.

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