A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

DJ Sniff
Katharina Weber, Barry Guy + Balts Nill ©2012 Doris Hüsler

When, in the 1920s, Vladimir Tatlin employed the slogan “Not the old, not the new, but the necessary!” it was to demonstrate his utopian view of the artistic perspective that Constructivism could bring to reinvent Russian society. How ironic that it so perfectly encapsulates the singular musical vision of György Kurtág, Hungarian composer, born in 1926, and an uncategorizable individualist. The fact that Kurtág fits into no school, has no stylistic allegiances or extramusical agendas, makes him all but unique among composers who came to prominence after WWII. He can’t be stereotyped as a Constructivist, serialist, surrealist, nationalist, indeterminist, New Complexist, tonal revisionist, or postmodernist – although his radically idiosyncratic approach may resemble any of these at various times. The largest part of his official catalogue is devoted to vocal works, and he has exquisite, if esoteric, taste in poets, limiting himself to the words of Akhmatova, Beckett, Hölderlin, Kafka, and several Hungarian authors, ancient and modern. There are also chamber pieces, quasi-concertos, a few symphonic scores, and even a handful of organ interludes put to liturgical use, all unconventional in form and expression. But, if recent recordings are any indication, his most popular – and most personal, that is, enigmatic, and ecstatic – works are his Games.

The Hungarian word is Játékok. To date, Kurtág has compiled eight books of Games for solo or duo piano(s),plus sequences of other Jelek, Játékok, és Üzenetek (Signs, Games, and Messages) for solo strings or reeds. Though they share some similarities with Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, they are not specifically intended as practice pieces or pedagogical aids for children, but with a childlike abandon they allow Kurtág to make up his own rules as he pleases. Many last only a few seconds – dark chords hovering in space or a quick drizzle of notes in counterpoint – while others suggest vignettes of dramatic or emotional significance. They are his musical diary of impressions, reminiscences, reactions, daydreams, tributes, memorials, allusions, and abstractions, and their brevity and purity of gesture show that unlike most composers who revel in the big bang and the grand statement, Kurtág tends to manipulate molecules and think in aphorisms. As with Webern, a kindred spirit if not literally a stylistic progenitor, such extreme concision may superficially seem solipsistic or intentionally obscure, but where the beauty of Webern’s music results from its structural intricacy, Kurtág’s is built, seemingly spontaneously, upon an intuitive intimacy – from fragments, echoes, nuances, quotations, intimations, and implications – and thus frequently benefits from associations that suggest symbolic or subjective relationships within a larger context.

Thus the relevance of Tatlin’s slogan; Kurtág’s material is neither new nor old, exactly, but in many ways both at the same time, and strictly necessary to capture the impulse and intent of the moment. Its inherent characteristics become especially apparent and meaningful when allowed to resonate against music that shares some of these characteristics and is either more familiar or expands upon them in more accessible ways. Kurtág himself set the precedent for this when, in a 1997 ECM release entitled Játékok, he interspersed among a brilliantly conceived and movingly performed program of original selections several instrumental arrangements of movements from Bach cantatas. The timelessness of Bach’s poignant lyricism and spiritual essence set Kurtág’s sharply-registered details and extreme contrasts of mood into high relief.

Subsequent interpreters have taken the hint. Jacob Greenberg, pianist with the International Chamber Ensemble (ICE) and a soloist with a wide-ranging, mostly contemporary repertoire, released Solitary (New Focus) in 2010. The ten Games he chose create a symmetrical pattern of exhilaration and restraint around their centerpiece, “An apocryphal hymn,” which resembles Satie’s earliest, somber Rosicrucian-influenced essays. But the rest of the well-played, thoughtfully-designed program highlights specific tendencies and symbolic twists from Kurtág’s methodology. The segue from Kurtág’s mournful “Farewell to Pal Kadosa” to Mozart’s deeply introspective “Rondo in A minor,” K. 511, is an insightful illumination of human nature’s varied responses to grief, while the following brisk, witty, rhythmically taut version of Schönberg’s “Suite,” op. 25, exposes the roots of Kurtág’s harmonic language. And the mixture of hope, longing, and despondency in works like “Gesang der Frühe” (Songs of Early Morning), the haunted Robert Schumann’s last piano cycle, must account at least in part for Kurtág’s acknowledged affection for Schumann’s music, and his occasional fractured reconfiguration of Schumann’s cascades and flourishes (examples are offered in the program below). All that’s missing is an example of Stravinsky, say, the “Piano Rag Music,” to pinpoint his connection to Kurtág’s jolting rhythms, as in the celebratory “Fanfares.”

Italian pianist and contemporary specialist Marino Formenti has taken the next step, filling two discs with a selection of Games and a thought-provoking, if somewhat skewed survey of historical pieces, from the austerity of Guillaume de Machaut’s medieval modal lyricism to one of Stockhausen’s dazzling contemporary constellations, and a number of surprises in between (Kurtág’s Ghosts, Kairos). Exploring the possibilities of and speculating upon similarities of mood and material, Formenti groups otherwise distinct works into “pseudo-suites” of related (or imagined) intent. Some are apparent, such as that which alternates stern, fervent pieces by Boulez, Messiaen, and Stockhausen with their respective inspired “hommages” from Kurtág, and the Eastern European folk-dance montage, demonic and dizzying, represented by Schubert, Bartok, Kurtág, and Beethoven (the latter an off-kilter ten-second bagatelle). Another perspective on dance rhythms, saner and broader in scope, includes Henry Purcell’s stately, gently ornamented “Round,” a Janácek hallucination that drifts from wistful to doggedly insistent and back again, Kurtág’s trembling “Doina,” a “wrong note” despairing waltz by Schubert that chillingly anticipates Chopin, Kurtág’s spooky response to Schubert, and a typically elegant (if overwrought under Formenti’s hands) Chopin “Mazurka.” The second disc concludes with Schumann’s elegiac “The poet speaks,” a pair of Liszt’s lamentations (“The funeral gondola” and “At Richard Wagner’s Grave”), and a sequence of Kurtág’s memorials to lost friends, all of such unrelieved gloom as to stun a horse. In his technique and thematic programming, Formenti opts for harsh, abrupt contrasts, staggering dynamic and dramatic shifts, and with only a few exceptions pushes the music to its breaking point. But among those exceptions are Kurtág’s heartfelt dedications to his teacher, Farkas Ferenc, and the oldest music here, by Machaut, Purcell, and Scarlatti. What Formenti clearly reveals is how Kurtág’s allusions and abstractions may be elevated to a state of intensity and grace, capable of stopping Time with just a few gestures, affected by the company they keep.

If such extreme sensitivity and imaginative vision implies compositional trust in intuition and impulse, the title of a new Intakt release from pianist Katharina Weber, bassist Barry Guy, and percussionist Balts Nill, Games and Improvisations, then, as well as being a literal description of the contents, identifies the conceptual affinity between idea and action. The eleven Games, phrased by Weber with delicacy and poise, emphasize an impressionistic subtlety and pensiveness; even the brusque eruptions have a wild logic. Staggered intervals insinuate song (“Bluebell”), patterns construct a labyrinth (“Dialog for the 70th Birthday of András Mihály [Or How Can One Answer to the Same 4 Sounds with Only 3]”), tolling bells note not the event, but the effect it had, after the fact (“[Thus It Happened]”). (Weber has studied at master classes with Kurtág and in fact wrote the booklet essay for his ‘97 ECM release.) But the context here shifts the point of view from that of Kurtág’s relationship with the past to the immediacy of the present. The trio’s improvisations, woven seamlessly among the Games, expand upon these brief episodes with responses non-idiomatic to Kurtág’s own style(s) – that is, rather than use Kurtág’s themes or harmonic language as a point of departure (so to speak), they respond in kind from their own experiences and with their own specific techniques, and, most importantly, with the formal and dynamic tension of group interplay. Weber adopts a different perspective, or several; the piano is found encompassing a broader melodic range, proposing themes, developing motifs, alternating between light and shadow, inhabiting a physical presence. Guy’s bass virtuosity adds an understated eloquence, commenting on details, accentuating the mood, extending a premise, punctuating the syntax. Nill is not a drummer per se here, but uses his objects and percussives to color, compel, interpose, and counteract. They alternately whisper and insist, generate sparse pointillist maneuvers and overlapping incidents of counterpoint. But the roles are reversed – Kurtág’s elegant riddles now serve as atmospheric preludes to the substantive improvisations. This doesn’t dilute their impact, but it does allow us to hear them as part of an ongoing dialogue. Refreshed by their surroundings, they remain new, and old, and necessary. One suspects Kurtág, and perhaps even Tatlin, would admit it’s all part of the game.

Art Lange©2012

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