Signs, Games & Messages: György Kurtág – 3rd May

Photograph of György Kurtág

Kafka Fragments, Op.24 *
Kurtág and György Kurtág Junior
Zwiegespräch [World premiere of revised version]

* Anu Komsi (soprano) & Sakari Oramo (violin)
Arditti Quartet
[Irvine Arditti & Graeme Jennings, violins; Dov Scheindlin, viola; Rohan de Saram, cello]
György Kurtág Junior (live electronics)
Serge de Laubier (sound engineer)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 May, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

A two-concert offering of Kurtág, opening with a wonderfully responsive performance of what may come to be seen as his masterpiece – Kafka Fragments. Composed between 1985 and 㥟, on texts the composer had been assembling since his years in Paris during the late 1950s, these 39 ’interpretations’ (settings seems too passive a description of Kurtág’s approach here) are grouped into four parts – though, unlike the earlier Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova song-cycle, without a clear emotional follow-through emerging.

Indeed, the Kafka cycle seems to proceed in the opposite direction, with the 19 texts of ’Part One’ often no more than fragments encouraging a visceral response from soprano and violinist. A major emotional change comes about with the single text of ’Part Two’, in which an almost incantatory vocal line and dense but subdued multiple-stopping results in a very personal take on the future in this ’Hommage-message à Pierre Boulez’. ’Part Three’ develops a more sustained intensity, culminatingin the choreographic ’Scene on a Tram’, before ’Part Four’ works through a sequence of increasingly inward speculation and reminiscence. The whole is bound together by the gestural as well as musical interaction of the performers, and by Kurtág’s uncanny ability to promote continuity through the very disruptiveness of his contrasts.

And continuity on an interpretative level was ensured by the dedication of the performance – each individual number characterised by exquisite attention to detail, and related in an overall sequence which is less a ’portrait’ of Kafka than an oblique exploration of his emotional world. Increasingly known here as a conductor, the CBSO’s chief, Sakari Oramo, demonstrated his prowess as a violinist in music that requires a high degree of personal insight in addition to technical command. Anu Komsi was fully at home in a role that similarly tests the dedication as well as the stamina of the singer. Sixty-five minutes of such inward intensity was not at all forbidding in the company of two such inspiring performers.

Then an apparent novelty in the form of an ’in progress’ collaboration between Kurtág’s Senior and Junior: Zwiegespräch, the revised version being heard publicly for the first time. The elder Kurtág introduced the performance in an informal and enthusiastic manner, which opened with a repeat performance of their 1990 tape homage to the first dog in space, Mémoire de Laika – proceeding with a short film entitled “Men’s Doubles”, in which father and son come to grips with the artificial intelligence displayed by the “Continuity” software programme. The Arditti Quartet then performed the 23-minute work twice, separated by an illustrated discussion with Kurtág.

Zwiegespräch is a five-movement work, in which the string quartet component – itself running the gamut of playing techniques – is complemented by the electronic ’response’ of Kurtág Junior on MIDI keyboards. After an anticipatory ’Sinfonia’, a fugitive overlay of textures follows in ’Shadows’ before the more substantial gestures of ’The Last Story’ and the typically Kurtág-ian nostalgia of ’Arioso’ the conclusion is a heightening confrontation between the two media in ’Dancing Letters’.

The Arditti Quartet gave their all in a work still in the process of evolving, while Kurtág Junior’s sanguine presence belied the ingenuity and impact he drew from the electronics – atmospherically diffused around the unatmospheric Purcell Room by Serge de Laubier. This was a refreshingly ’off the wall’ experience, and a valuable reminder of Kurtág’s unaffected and exploratory attitude towards composition when he could be coasting on his reputation as a ’grand old man’ of contemporary music.

  • The last concert in this series takes place 7 May 2002 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and includes Kurtág’s… quasi una fantasia … Op.27 No.1 andOp.27 No.2 ’Double Concerto’ as well as Beethoven, Bartók and Ligeti
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201

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