Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium György and Márta Kurtág & the Keller Quartet
After the Library of Congress’ recent parade of the rather bland contemporary American music, the premiere of a new work by Kurtág performed by the composer and his wife and long-time duet partner Márta was like a breath of fresh air. Exquisite comes to mind, as does vital. It was an honor to share in this celebration of a national treasure of another nation.
The programs describes György Kurtág as one of the world’s foremost composers, which is certainly true in certain circles. He has served as Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, as composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Konzerthausgesellschaft, and has a list of awards, honors and recordings too lengthy to even describe here. In America, Kurtág’s name is better known than his music still, I think, and the music is better known through recordings than through live performances. The experience of performances of works almost always exceeds the experience of hearing recordings of those works, but in Kurtág’s case, the contrast is particularly striking.
Much work has been done in the press and printed program to connect this concert to a Library of Congress concert of Kurtág’s countryman Béla Bartók. Bartók’s storied performance with violinist Joseph Szigeti, performed the at the Library of Congress in 1940 marked the premiere of Bartók Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano. (In a spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that the recording of that recital was a staple of my undergraduate listening regime.)
Kurtág’s new piece, commissioned by the Library’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, pays homage to Bartók throughout, though that parallels between the two composers only goes so far. In the concert mentioned above, a new work of Bartók was paired with his own work but also with works of Debussy and Beethoven, situation Bartók as a fulfillment and continuation of the common practice tradition. The Fifth String Quartet, also performed on Saturday, is designated ‘in Bb.’ The references, rhetorical and perceived, are certainly present in Kurtág’s music, but in a far more aphoristic and fragmentary nature.
The first half of the concert was performed by György and Márta Kurtág, playing with their back to the audience as an upright piano, setting the audience, as the program described to be eavesdroppers “on a married couple’s piano practice. . . made most charming by their interaction and intimacy, both with themselves and the music.” Such a gesture runs the risk of seeming like empty stagecraft, a precious little pirouette, but in the event, the impact was on the edge of miraculous. In part form their unimpeachable musicality and the weathering of virtuosity, but mostly from the smallness of the gestures and the materials of the sounding music. The stage setting was in a very real sense the program note, an elucidation of a way of listening modeled for the audience by the composer and his partner in life and music.
Játékok (Games) is a series of small works for piano hands derived in affect if not pedagogical function from Bartók’s <i>Mikrokosmos</i> were played interleaved with works from the <i>Mikrokosmos</i> and arrangements of works by Bach. The commissioned work, ‘Hommage à Bartók’ (for 4 and 2 hand piano) was remarkable in how unremarkable it was, in this context. Kurtág’s synthesis of Bartók’s work is so long standing and thorough going that one had less the sense of an unveiling of a new work than of the turning of a page in a book. These connections to traditions were turned oblique in the <i>6 Moments Musicaux</i>, an astounding kaleidoscopic assemblage of gestures and passages played with a confidence and focus of sound that was remarkable. The quicksilver counterpoint in string harmonics in the fifth movement was particularly remarkable, as was the hyper-romantic intensity of the opening movement.
The work was performed by the Keller Quartet, a Hungarian quartet whose recordings of Kurtág’s works have done much to broaden knowledge of his music. Saturday’s performance demonstrated the command of color that one would expect, based on the delicacy and control of their recordings, but also a dynamism which surprised. The combined to give the Fifth Quartet a more wiry character than is typical in performance, while loosing none of the ferocity of its rhythmic play. An elasticity of meter and pulse made the work even more dance like than I’ve often heard, especially in the third movement, <i>Scherzo alla bulgarese</i>. This elegance at the center helped amplify the intensity and machinic character of the outer movements though contrast, providing this listener with the most satisfying performance of the work he has ever heard.
The Kurtág performance, and his visit, are part of a New York and Washington, D.C. tour organized by the Hungarian Cultural Center of New York in conjunction with Extremely Hungary, a yearlong festival of performances and exhibitions celebrating the country’s contemporary arts and its impact on American culture. The work will be broadcast on the Concerts from the Library of Concert series on NPR and XM radio.
Let us hope for more concerts of this quality at the the Library’s Sprauge Auditorium, not merely in the caliber of the performers, but of in the seriousness and elegance of the dialogue between the works– the Kurtág’s understand that all works are in dialogue with the other works on the program, a lesson from which many of us, concert goers and concert makers alike, could learn.