György Kurtág: Signs, Games and Messages (ECM New Series 1730)

György Kurtág
Signs, Games and Messages

Kurt Widmer baritone
Orlando Trio
Hiromi Kikuchi violin
Ken Hakii viola
Stefan Metz cello
Mircea Ardeleanu percussion
Heinrich Huber trombone
David LeClair tuba
Recorded February/March 2002 at Radio DRS, Zurich
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When the heavenly procession proceeds higher
Then the joyful Son of the Highest
Is called like the sun by the strong,

As a watchword, like a staff of song
That points downwards,
For nothing is ordinary.

–Friedrich Hölderlin, “Patmos” (trans. James Mitchell)

In literary criticism, we throw around our fair share of arbitrary terms. Yet one I stand by, and of which I am especially fond, is “intertextuality,” which refers to the borrowing, shaping, and influence of texts on other texts. Similarly, one can say many things about Hungarian composer György Kurtág. He is a “master of the miniature,” a microscopic craftsman. His language implodes with a hermetic (im)precision. His wit is boundless, unassuming, and unabashedly lyrical. And so forth. But in the end, his sound-world is nothing if not intertextual. For one, we might feel tempted to read the Hölderlin-Gesänge for baritone as an exercise in a less tenable buzzword: deconstruction. Kurt Widmer’s superbly controlled breath wanders from its cradle in search of feet on which to stand, but instead finds a carefully broken ground. Its wavering entrances drop from a cloudless sky. The unexpected appearance of trombone and tuba beget a coarser exposition, proving that Kurtág’s fractures are never twice the same (compare, for instance, to the Kafka-Fragmente). Where sometimes he externalizes the hidden, here he shows us just how fragile the hands of our psyches must be when holding language. These are pieces not with but about words. Therefore, I must respectfully disagree with Thomas Bosche, who in his liner notes says “there is a secret here that is difficult to decode.” Rather, everything about this music is naked.

If anything, it is the ever-evolving opus that is Signs, Games and Messages which presents us with a more enigmatic grammar to parse. These fleeting vignettes for string trio—no less descriptive than their vocal predecessors—shift from playful (“The Carenza Jig”) to plaintive (“Ligatura Y”) in the blink of a galactic eye. The title starts us on the path to understanding: signs are the essence of communication, games the fields in which signs are manipulated. Yet messages trapise somewhere in between. Signs work differently than games, creating a freer vocabulary which, though it may be bound by rules, is not necessarily restricted by them in outcome. One of the most masterful pieces in this respect is “Eine Blume für Dénes Zsigmondy,” which unfolds silently not unlike a flower (an image plain to hear even before one looks at the title—a testament to Kurtág’s flair for the descriptive) while also wilting. In this instance, however, secrets don’t extend beyond the personal, so that every idiosyncrasy of “Perpetuum Mobile” A and B becomes a diacritical mark, leaving only the orthography for us to deduce. Even pieces like the “Hommage à John Cage” crumble before the pantheon of inspiration, as if aware that the only way to bring about their finer implications is to grind them into dust. Yet perhaps all this secrecy simply boils down to subtlety, for even in the stealthy clicks of “Schatten” we may see ourselves reflected.

…pas à pas – nulle part… brings together these same instrumental forces (baritone and string trio) and adds percussion to settings of poems by Samuel Becket, with a sprinkling of aphorisms from the misanthropic French writer Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794) for good measure. Over the course of—count them—34 parts, this collection draws strings between a fragile politic. From falsetto to whispers, the fantasy-like vocal aesthetic only seeks to enhance the “barely there” instrumentation. Against some intensely emphatic moments, the cello mocks with its self-harmonization, as if to simultaneously beautify and underscore an entire classical tradition. Lively stuff.

This is music that lingers, both within its own shadows and in the recesses of our memory. Unlike some contemporary music, it never feels like a challenge. It is, rather, a mellifluous gesture of hope born from fragments of hatred.

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Kim Kashkashian: Bartók/Eötvös/Kurtàg (ECM New Series 1711)

 

Kim Kashkashian
Bartók/Eötvös/Kurtàg

Kim Kashkashian viola
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded January and July 1999, Musiekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann and Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The viola has long been one of my most beloved instruments. I see it less as a “neglected” presence in the string world and more as a quiet supporter whose ubiquitous presence has simply been taken for granted. In all this time, it has never been compromised, and for that I adore it. Nearly all of my adoration can be attributed to one musician: Kim Kashkashian. For this all-Hungarian program, the instrument’s most committed proponent raises the bar on a standard work in the literature and sets another for two others.

Of the first, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, I can say that in Kashkashian’s firm grasp it falls with the sweetness of rain onto drought-ridden land. The concerto was written between July and August of 1945 and never finished, due to the composer’s death just one month later. Here, the musicians use Tibor Serly’s standard completed score along with some adjustments of their own. After a robust introduction from the viola, the 14-minute Moderato comes to life like an afterthought that was always meant to be. The viola is such a profound presence in this piece that at points one almost forgets the orchestra is even there. Rather than see this dynamic as a distraction, I chalk it to the orchestra’s ability (both in the playing and the writing) to infuse the soloist’s every move. Pizzicati crumble off like debris as discernible themes come and go through a fractured lens that opens our eyes to the pastoral, openhearted exchange of the second movement. Though hardly a third in length of the first movement, it plies our scales of judgment with as much moral weight. The third movement, marked Allegro Vivace, bursts almost immediately into the final dance. Like the rest of the concerto, it is so melodically confident that it could easily hold its own as a solo piece. What the orchestra provides is a tonal palette upon which the viola’s many colors may rest.

Replica for Viola and Orchestra was written in 1998 for Kashkashian by this recording’s conductor, Peter Eötvös. Regardless of what its intended replication is, the viola and orchestra are always sketching one another: the former linearly like smudged charcoal and the latter in bold yet multifarious brushstrokes dripping with excess paint. The puddle that collects on the floor beneath the easel is its own replica, more than a mere remnant of the creative process. Throughout this single-movement piece, we are never sure of where we are, only that we are comfortable being there. It is music to which we may open our ears without fear of harm.

György Kurtág’s Movement for Viola and Orchestra (1953/54) is the lone survivor of an abandoned early concerto and a welcome change of pace from, if no less fragmentary than, the miniatures that dot much of his other label representations. Distant timpani and swells of brass throw wide the curtains of its keen melodic stage. Also in one movement, its terse balance is the result of astute composing adorned with virtuosic viola writing and not a few demanding moments. Through every spiral we hear the revelry of composer and performer alike, plucked like so much fruit in the orchestra’s final pizzicato.

While a handful of fine recordings of the Bartók certainly exist (of which Hong-Mei Xiao’s superb twofer on Naxos is a personal favorite for comparison), Kashkashian’s brings something untouchable to bear upon this masterwork. To the others she imparts a fresh and mounting vitality. She plays with fortitude yet also with such grace that we find ourselves stunned in the middle. The crisp recording and all-around pellucid musicianship only strengthen her case. Hers is neither the delicate chiseling of the fine woodworker nor the casual scraping of the whittler. Rather, it is the rough-hewn grace of the ice sculptor. And like our breaths that cloud in the air as we watch her at work, the music fades all too soon.


Alternate cover (?)

György Kurtág: Musik für Streichinstrumente (ECM New Series 1598)

 

György Kurtág
Musik für Streichinstrumente

Keller Quartett
András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Ottó Kertész cello
György Kurtág celesta
Miklós Perényi cello
Recorded November 1995, Casino Zögetnitz, Vienna
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“To work with him is, simultaneously, very beautiful and very hard. Because he is always moving, because there is no wrong and right. He demands that one lives in the music, from moment to moment. And that’s what we’ve learned from him: whatever we play, to live in that music.”
–András Keller on György Kurtág

With all the rhetoric these days about “macro” effects—be they economic, intellectual, or social—the music of György Kurtág remains a treasure trove of microcosmic delights. Packed with allusions and personal musings galore, Musik für Streichinstrumente gives us a stack of intimate letters through which to pore and discover new sentiments every time. From the whispered beginnings of Aus der Ferne III (1991) for string quartet, we find ourselves in the shadow of something even more ephemeral than the shadow. So, too, in the highly concentrated Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky (1988/89). Kurtág’s block structure allows us to concentrate on each element on its own terms, as in Ligatura – Message to Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question). The Frances-Marie in question is Uitti, whose innovation and mastery of extended techniques allowed her, with the use of two bows, to enact what two cellists share here. It is a downright cosmic swelling, inhabited by the ghost of a distant star whose death reaches us light-years after the fact. It is not the prototype but the topotype, and cuts a fine cross-section of its own pathos. In its reprised form at the album’s conclusion, we get the mysterious appearance of a celesta (played here by Kurtág himself) in the final two measures.

Quartetto per archi (1959) is Kurtág’s Opus 1. It begins in fragments of awareness and structure, and bleeds through stages of insistence, call and response, and other delectable sporadica. As an organism, it is bound to the details of its own outcome as they are mapped out along the score and fleshed through practiced performance. Yet even in the latter, there is a sense of collapsed time in which the fleeting gesture becomes the primary mode of expression.

The twelve “microludes” for string quartet under the dedication Hommage à András Mihály (1977/78) attend to this process of collapse most attentively among the selections gathered for this program. Mihály was one of Kurtág’s earliest proponents, and Kurtág expands upon a motivic string from his cello concerto. These pseudo-variations span the gamut of the quotidian and the terse, the intertextual and the improvised, the urgent and the indifferent, so that by the end they cohere into a more lucid realization. The illusion of permanence is articulated through every bowing of a resonant string, which by nature must be finite in order for it to have begun.

The members of the Keller Quartett all studied with Kurtág at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, during which time they formed as a group and turned not a few heads with back-to-back wins at Europe’s most prestigious string quartet competitions. Their commitment to the moment results in a ponderous, nuanced performance.

Kurtág cannot be said to be accessing a continual ethereal voice from which he literally or figuratively plucks a few choice utterances. In describing the effect rather than creation of those utterances, he acknowledges both the light and that which is cast through its blockage. In every moment there is a galaxy, and in every galaxy a pocket of space in which this music continues to reverberate.

Hommage à R.Sch. (ECM New Series 1508)

 

György Kurtág
Robert Schumann
Hommage à R.Sch.

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Eduard Brunner clarinet
Recorded August 1992, May and September 1994, Kammermusiksaal Beethovenhaus, Bonn
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

During his lifetime, the idiosyncrasies of Robert Schumann earned him little of the posthumous admiration that now abounds. A Romantic to the core, he found solace in the hollow spaces of his rich musical ideas, manifested to greatest effect in the potent miniatures he left behind. Perhaps no one has inherited this legacy in such a life-affirming way as György Kurtág. In this brilliantly realized album, which pairs both composers in a fortuitous program, we hear not only the bridge that arches between their worlds, but also the river that flows beneath it. Kurtág’s micro-compositional Neun Stücke für Viola solo are threaded by thinnest of intentions and a captivating dynamic contrast between nervousness and lyricism (though, to be sure, what qualifies as lyricism here exists always at the molecular level). The fragment takes on sensory completeness, compensated as it is by the symbiosis of performance and listening, so that even in absence of an audience, the performer remains the immediate receiver of the audible gesture. Jelek (Signs) op. 5 brims with the rich, heady double stops of Kim Kashkashian’s faultless phrasing, ensuring that hidden messages ring with all the robust fragility that surrounds them. Kurtág’s lines are by turns pliant and rigid, vaccinated with moribund attention. Distinctions between “interior” and “exterior” become irrelevant and fold into a shapeless entity with neither. The album is ordered in such a way as to centralize the viola, so that when the piano and clarinet emerge in Hommage à R.Sch. op. 15d, they seem to flank it from all sides. Through this transition, the music becomes more “visible.”

With the Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) op. 113, we finally encounter Schumann in the flesh, though “stumble over” might be the more accurate term, as Kurtág’s ghostly echoes release us so effortlessly that we barely have time to breathe. These four vignettes for viola and piano melt into the ecstatic dramaturgy of the Fantasiestücke op. 73, in which the clarinet has its say before merging with the viola in the uniquely scored Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales) op. 132. These are profoundly embodied works that render any descriptive words mute to the touch, leaving me with little to offer for all their wonders.

Steady performances from all three musicians—but especially from Kashkashian, whose strings unravel like a mummy in the dusky light of an interstellar awakening—make for an engaging experience from front to back. Therein lies a pyramidal cycle, with the composers at its base, and a thread of life at its apex, pulled ever taut by an unseen alien hand.

György Kurtág: Játékok (ECM New Series 1619)

 

 

György Kurtág
Játékok

Márta Kurtág piano
György Kurtág piano
Recorded July 1996, Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

According to the classic formulation of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, play is a vital component of our preverbal development. As the child moves from away from mere imitation to more substantial activities in which representation plays a key role, s/he begins to develop a clearer sense of subjectivity, itself a game insofar as it requires a performance bound to both written and unwritten social guidelines. For Piaget, games can be classified as “practice” (pedagogical), “symbolic” (representational), or “games with rules.” What is most important about a game in the latter sense is that everyone involved agrees upon its parameters. This the whimsical challenge of György Kurtág’s Játékok (Games), which by its very titling and denouement seems to hollow out shelter in all of Piaget’s categories even as it sets a table upon which rules are served to be devoured. And while the task may fall upon its performers to uphold those rules throughout, this music also invites the listener to play along.

Játékok grew out of a snag in Kurtág’s own formative period, during which the seeds of this ever-expanding opus were planted. It consists primarily of miniatures, each bearing a dedication to an important figure in the composer’s life. Most hardly exceed one minute in length. Though begun as a collection of children’s etudes, not unlike Bartók’s seminal Mikrokosmos, the project soon grew into its own entity, and Kurtág found himself unable to staunch the wellspring it had uncovered. Over time it has donned more autobiographical clothing. Four pillars in the form of Kurtág’s own moving Bach transcriptions bolster these selections from eight volumes, ranging from the microscopic to the leviathan, the fleeting to the infallible. Between these are strung more pliable thematic ropes from which swings the blissful abandon that sustains them. These signposts, and especially “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” are thrown into fullest relief by the erratic chiseling of the two pianists. As husband and wife, György and Márta Kurtág bring their own lives to bear. Flirtations and arguments are, if you will excuse the pun, fair game here, all of which seek to reenact the stages of a life begun and ended at the piano. Theirs is a romantic performance of anti-romantic music, one that constantly trips over itself in its attempts to smile.

Játékok is an all-around delight. As an exercise in precision and trust in equal measure, it continually adapts to its own shape and self-awareness. As a veritable refinery of ideas, in it we may find plenty of jewels we might swear we’ve seen before. The recording is fresh and alive, the music even more so, and fully severs any roots it might ever have had in the avant-garde. Come to it as you are, and leave it content in knowing what you were.

György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente (ECM New Series 1965)

 

György Kurtág
Kafka-Fragmente

Juliane Banse soprano
András Keller violin
Recorded September 2005, Reitstadl, Neumarkt
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but rather just above the ground. Its purpose seems to be more to make one stumble than to be walked on.
–Franz Kafka

The Kafka-Fragmente (1985-87) of György Kurtág make up the composer’s longest song cycle to date. Written for soprano and violin, its forty short pieces fall just shy of an hour. While Kurtág frames the text, consisting of fragments from Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters, and its ordering as being secondary to the music, I believe a closer look at the words can only enrich one’s experience of these finely composed vignettes. In the same way that Kurtág has pulled Kafka out of context and reworked him, so too has he pulled melodic material from the words themselves and fashioned it into a demanding exercise in instrumental and vocal economy. The scoring may be sparse; the results are anything but. Kurtág’s miniaturist approach ensures that every word gets its unadulterated moment, while the intimate arrangements pay due attention to the space into which those words are deployed.

Some of these pieces are relentlessly dramatic—“Ruhelos” (Restless), “Stolz” (Pride), “Nichts dergleichen” (Nothing of the kind) come to mind—and others meditative—“Berceuse I,” “Träumend hing die Blume” (The flower hung dreamily), “Ziel, Weg, Zögern” (Destination, path, hesitation)—but all are linked by dialogue. Still others are playfully programmatic and concise, such as “Es zupfte mich jemand am Kleid” (Someone tugged at my clothes) and “Eine lange Geschichte” (A long story). The one fragment that is Part II, which I have quoted above, is a haunting piece and seems to act as the center toward which the others gravitate.

As part of a lifetime’s worth of personal musings and correspondences, Kafka’s jottings are, of course, rather candid, and indeed give us a “fragmentary” vision of the great writer. None is perhaps so self-deprecating as his letter to Milena Jesenká. “I am dirty,” he writes, “endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing that we take for the singing of angels.” Whatever darkness this piece may imply on the printed page is immediately transformed into a serenade, evoking the final image with voracious dedication. We find another lyrical moment in the mysterious “Verstecke” (Hiding-places), in which Kafka muses: “There are countless hiding-places, but only one salvation; but then again, there are as many paths to salvation as there are hiding-places,” and for which the accompaniment is suitably cryptic, scampering toward any available cranny in which it might conceal itself. Another highlight is “Szene in der Elektrischen” (Scene on a tram), a whimsical anecdote about street musicians and the delicate line they walk between musical appreciation and intrusion into personal space. Because the story tells of two violinists, the violinist must switch between two differently tuned instruments on either side of the soprano, who strings the narrative along with her own bowed articulations. The final fragment, “Es blendete uns die Mondnacht…” (The moonlit night dazzled us…), is a brooding and mystical evocation of animal spirits and the limits of human understanding.

Soprano Juliane Banse displays a superb command of voice as she squeals, chirps, and whispers her way through Kurtág’s personal selections, and violinist András Keller negotiates the minutiae therein with finesse and panache, while also managing to maintain the touch-and-go relationship with the texts at hand. In spite of the bright performances and ingenuity throughout, this isn’t necessarily music to have on the in the background while surfing the internet or throwing a dinner party (and to anyone using Kurtág to enhance a soiree, I humbly request that you invite me), but rather demands our attention as “readers.” Kurtág was in the studio throughout the entire recording process, and his presence is palpable. It is only appropriate, then, that we be just as present in the listening.