Author Topic: György Kurtág in DC  (Read 3384 times)

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Mark G. Simon

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György Kurtág in DC
« on: February 08, 2009, 07:44:25 AM »
Last night I attended a concert of music, mostly by György Kurtág at the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress. This was Kurtág himself playing the piano with his wife Márta. The concert was free, but you had to get tickets, and I had forgotten to order them in advance so I had to wait until the time of the concert to see if there was a seat available.

I got to the Library of Congress at 6:30, which is when they start passing out spare tickets, if they have any. I stood in line, and sure enough people ahead of me were walking away with tickets in their hands. The woman continued to pass out tickets until she got to the person just in front of me, and here it was apparent that there was only one ticket left, and that person was going to get it. Arrgh! The woman then handed me a card with the number 1 on it and told me to come back at 7:30, and if any more tickets became available I'd be first in line to get it. So I went out to dinner and when I came back I was shown into a side room to wait. Inside were rows of seats and a video screen. If nothing else I would see the concert on TV. I recalled that this room has a display case with several old violins, including Fritz Kreisler's Guarnerius. I went to look at it, and the Guarneri was gone. Scenarios of mystery stories started to fill my head, but only briefly. Just before concert time I was given a ticket and let in.

The Kurtágs ambled on to the stage and sat down at an upright piano which seemed to have been rigged with devices for electrical amplification. This is the kind of upright piano that sounds like the hammers have to hit a layer of mashed potatoes before they can get to the strings. I sat and looked longingly at the 9-foot Steinway sitting unused at the back of the stage. The first half of the program was all done as one "set", and they went from one piece to the next without pause. They started with Canon at the Lower Fifth from Book I of Bartók's Mikrokosmos, as plain and simple an opening as you can get, and went from there into an arrangement of Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 614 by Bach. It seems the Kurtágs enjoy playing Bach when they're not playing Kurtág, for the program was peppered with Bach arrangements. And he always arranges these pieces with lots of hand crossings, so that the two of them are always entwined. Certainly they come off as a charming old couple, and I understand they are very devoted to each other in real life. Typically she plays the very top line and the very bottom and he fills in the middle. There were 13 selections from Kurtág's Játétok and two more Bach selections in the first half. I took notes on them but lost the slip of paper at intermission. Here's a list of titles:

Hommage à Reinhart de Leeuw
Consolation sereine -- to Renee Jonker
Versetto (Apochryphal Organum)
Knots
Antiphony in F sharp
An Apocryphal Hymn (in the style of Alfred Schnittke)
In Memoriam András Mihály
Gott, durch deine Güte, BWV 600 (Bach)
Dirge
Melody (1947)
Fugitive Thoughts About the Alberti Bass
Hommage à M. K.
Merran's Dream -- Caliban Detecting-Rebuilding Miranda's Dream
Study to Pilinszky's Hölderlin
Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (Bach)

György played the first 7 of these, with Márta on stage turning pages. Some of the titles take as long to say as the pieces do to play. He writes little whisps of sound, many of the pieces focus on one particular interval. The Antiphony in F sharp focuses on a single note, though not to the exclusion of others. Márta returned to the keyboard for the next Bach arrangement and stayed to play the next several selections by herself. Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass features the occasional broken triad, and a few other notes peppered in among the silence.

After intermission, they came back to play the world premiere of Hommage à Bartók, again for piano four-hands, this time using the Steinway. Hooray for that. György played the first movement, Márta played the last, and the middle movement, yet another Bach arrangement, was played by the both of them. The movements were longer, and yet they didn't seem to say much more, just extended his whispy music for longer time periods. The movement titles are:

Adieu, Haydée I & II
Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gottessohn
*** Mártának (the 3 stars arranged in a triangle)

At that point they got a big round of applause, presented the manuscript score of the new piece to the Head of the Music Division, who gave a little speech thanking them, and went down to sit in the audience.

The concert continued with the Keller Quartet, a fine Ugrian string quartet, who played Kurtág's 6 Moments Musicaux, another collection of whisps, which I characterized as "Assertive", "Hesitant", "Skittish", "Mysterious", "Birds (harmonics)", and I didn't come up with anything for the last one. The audience was getting noticeably restless by this point, as was I, and some people got up to leave when it was over.

I didn't, because there was more on the program: the Keller Quartet came back and played the String Quartet no. 5 by Bartók, the original manuscript of which was on display out in the lobby. Boy, what a thrill this piece is! They didn't play it with that aggressive Juilliard edge, in fact it started out even laid back, I thought. But in retrospect, what it was was centered, poised and ready to take off. Once the two sonata themes were taken care of and the development was about to start, the quartet sprung into action and showed they really mean business. This group doesn't play as cleanly as the Emerson Quartet -- heck, who does? -- but they played the hell out of it, especially that unbelievable scherzo that just goes like the wind in that crazy x+x+x+x meter. When they were finished I just wanted them to come back and play it all again.

I should also mention that when the Keller Quartet came out, the first violinist announced that he would be playing on the Kreisler Guarneri violin from the library's collection. Mystery solved.


Offline Guido

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Re: György Kurtág in DC
« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2009, 12:17:38 PM »
Thanks for the review. Not many positive adjectives at all for the Kurtag part of the concert - not to your taste?
Geologist.

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Mark G. Simon

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Re: György Kurtág in DC
« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2009, 04:18:54 PM »
I think if I'd held on to the notes I took for the first half, there would have been more positive comments. But I got kind of Kurtaged out. He's the kind of composer that if he doesn't make his point within 30 seconds he's not going to make it at all. The Játétok pieces by and large fell within the 30 second range. Sometimes they were about a single interval. One piece was about fifths, another was about major seconds. One piece was about the note F#.

In general, this is not one of my favorite composers, but I recognized that this was my chance to see a major figure of contemporary music live and in person and I wasn't going to let it slip by. And you couldn't beat the price.

sul G

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Re: György Kurtág in DC
« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2009, 04:28:25 PM »
[my first post]

I'm jealous! And more so than usual this week - I stumbled across the complete Jatekok sheet music last week in a charity shop (each book less than £7) and have been playing them obsessively ever since. The first book is a great success with my beginner piano students, too, which is just wonderful to see. It fills precisely the role I imagine it was intended to fill; that is, helping the child to feel at home with the whole of the keyboard, to be confident in the physicality of the thing. Splendid.

Offline Brewski

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Re: György Kurtág in DC
« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2009, 04:44:40 PM »
Great write-up, Mark!  I saw the same concert here in NYC and liked it so much that I actually gave brief thought to going down to DC.  (Especially since, as you note, the price was hard to beat.) 

There was something very touching about seeing the two of them at the piano together, and of course, at their age, who knows if we will ever see them performing again.  I'm doing an "official" review so I'll try to remember to post the link here. 

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Offline Guido

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Re: György Kurtág in DC
« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2009, 04:47:19 PM »
[my first post]

I'm jealous! And more so than usual this week - I stumbled across the complete Jatekok sheet music last week in a charity shop (each book less than £7) and have been playing them obsessively ever since. The first book is a great success with my beginner piano students, too, which is just wonderful to see. It fills precisely the role I imagine it was intended to fill; that is, helping the child to feel at home with the whole of the keyboard, to be confident in the physicality of the thing. Splendid.

Welcome! Where the hell do you shop?  ;D  And more to the point, who would give them to a charity shop? What a find!
Geologist.

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sul G

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Re: György Kurtág in DC
« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2009, 04:56:29 PM »
Welcome! Where the hell do you shop?  ;D  And more to the point, who would give them to a charity shop? What a find!

Thanks! I'm assuming that whoever got rid of the Kurtag must have had other goodies, though the man at the counter didn't know, so I'm going to lurk around there again asap. Certainly one of my best surprise hauls.