Kurtág: Signs, Messages, but no Games / Armchair Operas and Amusements 12. / Hungarian Holiday 4.

Grant Chu Covell

[September 2017.]

György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir.” György KURTÁG: Four Capriccios, Op. 9 (1959-70; rev. 1993)1; Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op. 11 (1975)2; Grabstein für Stephan, Op. 15c (1978-79; rev. 1989)3; Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova [sic], Op. 17 (1976-80)4; …quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27, No. 1 (1987-88)5; Op. 27, No. 2 (Double Concerto) (1989-90)6; Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, Op. 30b (1991)7; Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op. 18 (1980-1994)8; Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 (1997-2008)9; Colindă-Baladă, Op. 46 (2010)10; Brefs Messages, Op. 47 (2011)11. Natalia Zagorinskaya1,4,9 (sop), Gerrie de Vries7 (m-sop), Yves Saelens10 (ten), Harry van der Kamp2 (bass), Jean-Guihen Queyras6 (vlc), Elliott Simpson3 (guit), Tamara Stefanovich5,6 (pno), Csaba Király7 (pianino, spoken word), Netherlands Radio Choir8,10, Asko|Schönberg1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11, Reinbert de Leeuw1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 (cond.). ECM New Series 2505-07 (3 CDs) (http://www.ecmrecords.com/).

Kurtág’s is precise upon the page. He also demands interpretive skills that can only be gained from experience with other music. It is not uncommon for a gesture to be shared between two players, sometimes with inherently different timbres. This requires that the musicians listen to each other and respond to what they hear. Thus Kurtág is easier for smaller, cohesive ensembles, which is why selections from two accruing collections, Játékok, for piano(s), and Signs, Games and Messages, for mostly solo or a few instruments, dominate the catalog of available recordings. You could be misled into thinking that Kurtág (b. 1926) is but a purveyor of miniatures for piano or small groups.

ECM has bundled crackerjack performances of 11 large-scale compositions, most with voices backed by orchestra or large ensembles. All are recently recorded (between March 2013 and July 2016). Even with enormous forces at the ready, Kurtág creates mercurial chamber music effects, and not all movements are bitty.

I haven’t heard new recordings of some of these works since first making Kurtág’s acquaintance long ago with Hungaroton LPs of songs and chamber items (The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, etc., selections since reissued on CD as HCD 31290) and then Boulez’s recording of Messages de Feu Demoiselle R.V. Troussova (on an Erato LP). Under de Leeuw’s unifying vision, Kurtág emerges as fragile and cranky, crafting intense scores with occasional vituperative bursts.

Perhaps one reason why these pieces are rarely recorded is that it’s hard to get the balances right. Grabstein für Stephan, for guitar and “groups of instruments dispersed in space,” can be subtle except for violent ensemble fanfares. There are also massed wind chords and delicate percussion (including cimbalom, bells and celeste). While studying in Paris (1957-58), Kurtág underwent psychological therapy with Marianne Stein, and this piece commemorates her husband. An older recording with Jürgen Rock, guitar, and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado (DG 447 761-2, recorded 12/1994, with Stele and Stockhausen’s Gruppen) is incredibly hard to discern, although explosive when necessary (Gruppen comes off as muddled as well).

Whether to clarify Kurtág’s textures or emphasize the emotional range, de Leeuw sometimes leads slower performances compared to his predecessors. De Leeuw has been performing this music for years, with the composer’s guidance, and so we must believe he is onto something. This Samuel Beckett: What is the Word is practically a different composition compared to a prior release featuring one of the original intended performers, Ildikó Monyók (DG 437 840-2, with Monyók, speaker, Annet Zaire, soprano, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the Ensemble Anton Webern under Claudio Abbado, rec. 10/1991, including compositions by Nono, Furrer and Rihm, all of which are homages or dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky).

After a car accident, Monyók had to relearn how to speak, and this halting Beckett setting in both English and Hungarian reflects that experience. (There exists an earlier version, Op. 30a, from 1990, for upright piano and speaker.) Both ECM and DG revel in the window rattling blast that opens the chamber orchestra version, Op. 30b. Uncomfortably intense, the 12:01 DG release emphasizes Monyók’s strange, stumbling utterances. As if unspooling thread, de Leeuw extends the piece to 16:21. Perhaps this laborious pace is more Beckett-like.

Kurtág’s Op. 27 pair refers to Beethoven’s two Op. 27 piano sonatas: No. 1 bears the title “Quasi una Fantasia,” No. 2 is the “MoonlightSonata. It is perhaps safe to say that from there, all resemblance ends, or else is enormously obscured. Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia… is short (8:59 here), and its four dissimilar movements suggest treasured scraps from an abandoned piano concerto (which may actually be the case). The movements may momentarily glance at Webern, Bartók or Stravinsky, but overall this quasi- or anti-piano concerto expresses isolation and dislocation.

It is hard for a recording to capture how the players are positioned, but de Leeuw magnifies details. Kurtág delivers great contrast in brief time periods, and diverse routes are possible through the material. Peter Eötvös’ recording with pianist Hermann Kretzschmar and Ensemble Modern (Sony SK 53290; rec. 6/1990; 8:41) is effective but far less vivid.

The companion to …quasi una fantasia… is titled Op. 27, No. 2, and bears the subtitle Double Concerto. Cello and piano are the leads, surrounded by their own orchestras in two funereal and bleak movements. Square rhythms suggest primitive folk music. At one point the cello navigates a chromatic microtonal passage while lowering the C-string. In the second movement, fractured chorale material and independently moving chords demonstrate a polytonal approach to material. Cello and piano have soloists’ parts, but ensemble continually clouds them. Queyras’ cello does poetically cut through the texture.

The Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova is a three-part collection of 21 poems, sung in Russian, written by Rimma Dalos. I don’t know why this release drops the title’s “V.” These songs have so much incident that it is nearly impossible not to listen in awestruck fascination as material comes and goes in response to the sometimes absurd but bittersweet love poems.

Boulez’s 4/1983 recording has Kurtág’s intended vocalist, Adrienne Csengery, and leading cimbalom player Márta Fábián (25:52; reissued in Erato’s 14-disc set of Boulez’s complete recordings for the label, Erato 0825646190485, with the Ensemble intercontemporain, of course). Fábián also appears with soprano Rosemary Hardy and the Ensemble Modern directed by Peter Eötvös (Sony SK 53290; rec. 6/1990; 26:08). Eötvös and Boulez follow similar Romantic maps through Messages, but the music is not as crystalline and glinting as de Leeuw’s assembly. De Leeuw’s 25:12 accommodates a far more disjoint treatment, and the accompaniment isn’t an orchestra, but many independent players fleetingly grouped together.

Van der Kamp’s interpretation of the detailed Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky contrasts István Gáti’s on Hungaroton with an ensemble led by András Mihály (Hungaroton HCD 31290; rec. 1975 or ’76; 7:33). Van der Kamp declaims the first song, Alkohol, with overtone shaping and guttural rasping. Hölderlin is 0:42 and less panicky than Gáti’s rushed 0:32. De Leeuw allows Verés’ (“Beating”) concluding canons to unwind rather elegantly.

Disc three offers less frequently heard works. Songs of Despair and Sorrow requires an agile mixed chorus, and its six Russian settings draw from a motley cast of supporting instruments (brass, bayans, harmoniums, piano, percussion and strings). The four Akhmatova poems, set against a precisely deployed chamber group, are dedicated to Zagorinskaya which she negotiates with confidence. Colindă-Baladă, for tenor, mixed chorus and instruments including plenty of percussion, sung in Romanian, tells a creation myth.

Brefs Messages requires a handful of instruments (English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, trombone, trumpet and string trio). These are four apparently unrelated miniatures: a brass Fanfare, a wind duet, a strange chorale sequence (Ligatura Y which elaborates a Signs, Games and Messages item), and finally, a song arrangement (Az hit) which gives the vocal part to trumpet (familiar from The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, Op. 7, or the solo cello arrangement). Kurtág appears to go forwards and backwards at the same time, which perhaps is what substantiates this music’s timelessness.