14 May 2009


It strikes me, looking back through this postings, that I've never posted my impressions of Gyorgy Kurtag, the Hungarian composer, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, by being feted (as all composers are on high numbered birthdays) here in New York. I began to look at his music becuase so many had spoken so highly about it, and I came into the process knowing nothing at all about his style, influences or approaches. I have learned and am finding the journey to be alternately challenging and frustrating. One thing I have learned, afte working diligently to create a chronology, is that it is well nigh impossible to do such given the opus numbers and the years attached to certain pieces, not to mention revisions and withdrawals. A good example of this is the Four Capriccios, Opus 9: the dates listed are 1959-1970 with a revision in 1993 - so when do I listen to that? In the end I put together a list and have been trying my best to listen in an order. What follows are my current impressions.

Suite, pf, 1943, unpubd
Cannot find

Klárisok [Beads] (A. József), 1950
Elegant little chorus in shifting meters based on a poem of József Attila. Shows promise. Clear harmonies.

Suite, pf duet, 1950–51
It's a little neoclassical suite - there is no recording. In four movements, the second a slow movement in F minor, the third a minuet, and the fourth a presto chango with bell-like false octaves. Cheery little pieces that would be easy to put together, in the style of many pedagocial pieces for four hands. Some fun choreography as well.

Táncdal [Dance-Song] (S. Weöres), children's chorus, pf, 1952, withdrawn

Koreai kantáta [Korean Cant.] (K. Kotzián), B, mixed chorus, orch, 1952–3

Viola Concerto, 1953–4
One movement is still out there and recorded by Kim Kashkashian. It seems like a first movement, sounds considerably like Shostakovich. I get the sense of a sure handling of the orchestra, though not necessarily a sure handling of tension. Carla liked it, in that it is tuneful, sequential and so forth, but it doesn't do it for me. I'd much rather listen to Shostakovich.

Dalok Vasvári István verseire [Songs to Poems by István Vasvári], Bar, pf, 1955, unpubd, withdrawn

untitled piece, pf, 1958, unpubd, withdrawn
Published in the book by Beckles Willson "Gyorgy Kurtag: The Sayings of Peter Bornemitzsa"(p.34) It has the look of a serial work, but is filled with thirds and Webernian diminuendos and crescendos on held piano pitches.

String Quartet, op.1, 1959
This is not a particularly strong piece though presumably it betrays future tendencies. Six mini movements each a series of quasi-expressionistic gestures juxtaposed, often like a loud and not-as-subtle Webern. Sometimes he moves into a groove, as in the more successful fifth movement. The sixth begins with a touch of sorrowful melody, which he would have done well to continue exploring. Otherwise, I'm not impressed in the slightest.

Wind Quintet, op.2, 1959
This ranks up there with the stronger of the wind quintets that I have heard. In eight tiny aphoristic movements, each setting a mood rather than developing a theme or a mood. Of these #5 with its improvised form - each instrument repeats a phrase more or less independent of the others, which gives an overall bird-sound feel, is successful. I'm also fond of #7, Mesto a flute morse code against long lines in the bassoon and clarinet.

8 Pianoforte Pieces, op.3, 1960
These are eight tiny strange almost to the point of being mysterious piano visions. They run the gamut from Eonta-esque (before Xenakis did it) randomness to Cowell clusters to Schumann like enigmas. An interesting set. Doesn't really make a narrative in the overall.

8 Duos, op.4, vn, cimb, 1961
Again totally inscrutable, a series of tiny aphorisms - the whole thing lasts about 6 minutes - of a rather harsh character at least for the violin, the violin writing is quite good and gives the players a lot to work with (which may account for Kurtag's popularity). Number 7 is nice an expanding variation of sorts, as is number 4 which juxtaposes violin trills wih cimbalom strkies. It is almost as if the violin is playing the cimbalom at points with its tremolo figures, see number 5 and quick trills and col legnos.

Jelek [Signs], op.5, va, 1961, rev. 1992
Six, guess what, short fragmentary movements for viola solo. These were revised again in the 1990s. I'm not particularly moved by these, at best I find the moment up into number 5 where he calls for a scordatura and the tuning is heard to be most interesting. Though there are also nice moments in number three with is organic and gentle-almost use of the four strings as if the bow is exploring the four strings.

Cinque merrycate, op.6, gui, 1962; unpubd, withdrawn
No information

Jelek, op.5b, vc, 1961–99
Reviewed later

Bornemisza Péter mondásai [The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza], op.7, S, pf, 1963–8, rev. 1976
An almost forty-minute virtuosistic cycle in four movements, each, with the exception of the first, comprised of a number of smaller sections. On a first listen I'm struck by the piano writing which has a nervousness and agitation that never seems to go away. It is constantly inventive and seems to hold numerous mysteries, always providing some new material some interesting conception of the piano. Obviously influenced by Messaien's writing - especialliy in its additive rhythms and multiple canonic structures. Note also the way that he composes for the piano in complex overlapping rhyhtmic figures in one hand anticipating later developments. Notice also the soprano singing into the piano for the resonance. The best I think is the first movement which has a sharp nervousness that is sustained for its four minute duration - a long time for Kurtag.

Egy téli alkony emlékére [In Memory of a Winter Sunset] (P. Gulyás), op.8, S, vn, cimb, 1969
Cannot obtain

4 Capriccios (I. Bálint), op.9, S, chbr orch, 1959–70, rev. 1993

24 Antiphonae, op.10, orch, 1970–71, inc., unpubd, withdrawn
No information

Transcriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach, pf duet, pf 6 hands, 2 pf, 1973–91
Regarding the Bach settings, which are exquisite loving recastings, orchestrations for the piano, a few comments. These are remarkably subtle from the notated crossed hands of the Sinfonia to Gottes Zeit which makes it balance the volume in a way that is so true for amateurs, to the toy-piano like acoustical weirdness that ensues with the melody harmonized at the steady octave plus a fifth of O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig. Others are similarly elegant: Aus Tiefer Not with its bells and almost mechanical unfolding of the keyboard, it is like a bell is tightened and the whole piano sounds this glorious Bach, the remarkable moment in Allein Gott with its too crossed hands and sparkling bells, the massive Durch Adam's Fall again the whole piano sounds, and Liebster Jesu with its unresolved harmonies and cimbalom grace notes. All are very special. Of the other works in the collection - the Machaut is a loving interplay of hands, I'm not as fond of the Lassus: Qui sequitur me or the Frescobaldi - a real favorite for the Hungarian set (consider Ligeti's Frescobaldi work). The Schutz (from the Seven Words and the Matthew Passion) are touching fragments. The Purcell is also nice - the Queen's Funeral March and the Fantasia. Lovingly done hausmusik.

Szálkák [Splinters], op.6c, cimb, 1973
I'm returning listening to Kurtag after a summer off with this set of four miniatures for cimbalom. There are some nice moments, the harmonic motion in the opening piece and the ending with its repeated low D overlaid with small fragments and isolated notes. I feel like I've heard a good deal of this before, not sure whether it was in the duos of Opus 4 or the piano pieces of opus 3 or was it something else. These pieces I'm not sure where to go with them and maybe that's their success, the second movement with its outbursts that stop in a cluster which is sustained - memorable.

Elő-Játékok [Pre-Games], pf, 1973–4
Cannot obtain

Játékok, pf, 1st ser., 1975–9
Cannot obtain

4 dal Pilinszky János verseire [4 Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky], op.11, B-Bar, chbr ens, 1975 [nos.1–3 arr. B-Bar, pf, as op.11a, 1986]
Four works for varied instruments with Bass voice. The first a drone on D with a monotone, the second with violin and bass stopping and starting, the third with trio isrambunctious and quick. Finally the fourth which brings in various other instruments is tiny - and sets up a looping repetition of a dreamlike gesture. The sort of thing you could only perform if you weren't paying the players.

In memoriam Zilcz György, 2 tpt, 2 trbn, tuba, 1975
Cannot obtain

Eszká emlékzaj [S.K. Remembrance Noise] (D. Tandori), op.12, S, vn, 1975
Seven small works for violin and soprano evoking memories of something lost - I'm fond of the evocation of the electric razor in the second song. There is also a token song that plays with words.

untitled pieces, op.15, gui, 1976–7, unpubd, withdrawn
Withdrawn. No information

Hommage à Mihály András (12 Microludes for Str Qt), op.13, 1977
12 Aphorisms for string quartet. I think what makes these so dificult to comment on is their breivity. This is obvious we never are given enough to really make much of a judgment on the particular piece and the quantity of them in a given setting makes it all the more difficult to retain anything from the experience. Let's say there were four even then it may be too much. Better to have each stand on its own, but then you're shuffling around for thirty seconds of music - so new solution, take a concert have a quartet on the side between each piece reacting with one of these microludes. Again a ridiculous concept - so we are left with works that are unplayable in that sense and moreso don't warrant that fact in the quantity we are given. Perhaps the Jatekok strategy is better: pick and choose.

A kis csáva [The Little Predicament], op.15b, pic, trbn, gui, 1978
Aparently this short absurdist piece was written for an art opening. It is in four movements and scored for the unlikely combination of piccolo, trombone and guitar, a combination which is nearly impossibe to balance even on a recording. This absurdity is played up in the opening - a solo for trombone, calling to mind Mussorgsky, and the second movement a chorale a la Stravinsky. The final movement a nachtstuck tries to work with glissandos in the piccolo and trombone over the guitar chords. It could work better with a slide whistle - in this way we'd evoke those Bartok night pieces, the slide whistle a stand in for birds the trombone growling in the low registers trying to be winds and the guitar an Aeolian harp - this I think is the idea, but it isn't conveyed on the otherwise excellent Starobin recording - I'm not sure if it could be conveyed at all. Interesting potential.

Szálkák [Splinters], op.6d, pf, 1978;
No information

Grabstein für Stephan, op.15c, gui, ens, 1978–9, rev. 1989

3 pezzi, op.14e, vn, pf, 1979
Oddly this tiny piece is not recorded. In three small movements, the first playing with the ambiguity of B as a tonic of a suspended tonality (I mean primarily a suspended chord like C#-F#-B which can have the B suspended in an F# chord or the C# wanting to go to the minor) and the open strings of the violin, which puts the B as a third, its lovely and not too difficult. The second movement works with the harmonic E and the final "Aus die Ferne" is a small moving around B - like very very slow mordents with both the naturals (C-B-A-B-C-B-A-B) and the sharps (C#-B-A#-B etc) with tones hung out to dry in the piano. It is moody and evocative and with few enough segments that it makes its point.

Poslaniya pokoynoy R.V. Trusovoy [Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova] (R. Dalos), op.17, S, ens, 1976–80
Not knowing about the late RV Troussova - frankly I don't think one should get gravitas from the circumstances of the portagonist, one should rather get it from the music - I find this a bit overlong and the multitude of small aphoristic pieces do the opposite of their intention by breaking things up far too much for the many ideas to coalesce into one piece. Kurtag's plan is certainly to have the world be put together in these various details, but there is never enough time to live in the rich worlds he builds. Some worlds are angry, others lyrical, the horn is put to good use and some worlds are Stravinskian - love the Les Noces ensemble sound. I think Kurtag's real skill is not as a melodist, or realy as a narrativist, but in orchestration and I know I've said this before, but again here there are stunning moments of orchestration - the clarinet, vibraphone and bells in the first of the third section is a particular standout.

Herdecker Eurythmie (E. Lösch), spkr, fl, vn, t lyre, op.14a–c, 1979
There appear to be three volumes of this work, 14a is scored for flute with chromatic tenor lyre. In four - surprise - enigmatic tiny movements, one of which is borrowed from the Sayings of Peter Bornemisza. The last Blumen die Menschen 2 is probably the most lovely. I don't know the other two parts, which were unavailable to me.

Omaggio a Luigi Nono (A. Akhmatova, R. Dalos), op.16, 1979, rev. 1985

Stsenï iz romana [Scenes from a Novel] (R. Dalos), op.19, S, vn, db, cimb, 1979–82
This series of fragments - an opera of sorts acts like an anti-Frau und Leben und Lieben or whatever the real title of the Schumann cycle is. Set for the odd and unlikely combination of soprano, violin, cimbalom and double bass, it works. Much stronger than many of the other Kurtag aphorism collections - this is tied together by the text which provides the sort of narrative dramatic framework that I find lacking in the smaller duos and the like. Kurtag's idea of narrative is very French New-Wave, we don't need the actual setting up shots, all we need are the events and the drama works from there. The music is really too short to comment on directly, but in line with the Truffault style he does present clear crisp musical images that don't need to be defined: the Hommage to Mahler, for instance with its rustic open fifths in sixteenth notes had me laughing in its quick characterisation just from a single gesture - yes that was Mahler, as with the Hommage to Schnittke which with its quirky waltz was like looking at the composers work with a loupe. Nice.

József Attila-töredékek [Attila József Fragments], op.20, S, 1981
I come into this knowing nothing about Josef Attila, I can only assume based on the setting, for soprano alone, that Attila was working in a mock-folk idiom and working alone. The settings, 20 fragments - setting is too strong a word, are presented in a style that seems to borrow more from unaccompanied folk lament, though there are few if any repetitions within the works. Instead we have 20 finely crafted melodies many of them moving around a pitch axis and filling in space. By way of example consider #17 "A Kerten" he sets up chromatic descending sixth and then finishes the pattern with three dyads that aren't a part: C#-C, C#-A, F-Ab the remainder of the line takes the space left open in these three and fills it in: E-D#-E#-F#-Ab-G-A-F#-Bb-F-E making it all but inevitable that the next pitch be B which it is the space in the wedge which hasn't been filled.

Look also at #20, which like the endings of many of these Kurtag pieces ends with an almost "white-note" fragment. Again the opening line is an expansion from a pitch wedge: C-B; add a new note E-C-B; and then the wedge expands in both directions: F-A-G. A new wedge then starts: E-G#-D#-D-F#-C#-C (this can be understood as three overlaid descending lines: E-D-C; G#-F#; D#-C#)we then return to the first wedge: G up high, Eb below. The empty space is then filled and the wedge extends lower: E-C-Ab-F and Db and so forth until the end.

As a whole it requires a lot of the singer to pull it together into a coherent unit. (I read now after writing this that Attila is considered one of the finest Hungarian poets of the 20th century, may have been schizophrenic, and committed suicide in 1937.)

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