Sometimes in music a little goes an awfully long way, and you’d be hard pushed to find a classical composer who embodies that philosophy more actively than György Kurtág. The culmination of the Wigmore Hall’s celebration of his 80th birthday brought a third chance to experience this for ourselves. This was less obviously projected in the first half, which consisted of the UK premiere of the substantial Hipartita, performed by the dedicatee Hiromi Kikuchi.
According to the website of Kurtág’s Hungarian publisher, Kikuchi retains the sole performing right until the end of 2007 at the very earliest, and after a listen to the fiendishly difficult yet personal music it was easy to see why.
For the performance the violinist had no fewer than eleven music stands arranged across the platform. While this was undoubtedly necessary it also acted as a barrier between artist and audience, the intensely personal music kept at arm’s length. While difficult to grasp the music fully on just one listen, Kurtág used the piece to continue his tradition of honouring contemporaries and influences, in this case actor György Gonda and composers Ligeti and Eötvös. The pesante of Durch’s Gebirg stuck in the mind, Kikuchi’s heavy strokes like a mountaineer’s laboured step, while elsewhere her soft pianissimi were striking in their clarity.
With the removal of the barriers came music of lightness and charm, expressed in the communal medium of excerpts from Játékok. This ongoing ‘cycle of games’ is written for two people sat at the same upright piano, described by Kurtág as a ‘piano con supersordino’, with the mute pedal applied throughout.
Kurtág and his wife Márta sat with their backs to the audience, and the effect was that of eavesdropping on a married couple’s piano practice, in a sense made most charming by their interaction and intimacy, both with themselves and the music. So affecting were their performances that it was impossible not to be drawn in.
It helps to be married for a performance of Játékok, that’s for sure, as the score frequently calls for the players to invade each other’s personal space by crossing hands. This meant Márta would frequently reach over her husband to find lightly brushed lower register notes in an exquisite reading of Bach’s chorale prelude Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. For while this cycle is ostensibly Kurtág’s, it intersperses his own original work with evocative and inventive transcriptions of Bach and began with a brief, childlike Canon taken from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos.
There were passages for solo pianist too, so Márta stood over her husband like an attentive teacher as he played the Debussian delicacy and intrigue of Consolation sereine, which came as if from afar. The remarkable layered chords of In memoriam Andras Mihaly were like slowly shifting blocks of ice, while the Versetto was an odd if slightly playful scramble of notes.
Márta rejoined for another Bach prelude, then took centre stage herself for the wonderfully titled and executed Fugitive thoughts about the Alberti bass, following this with a lightness of touch for Merran’s Dream, with her husband adding the final lower chord.
The pieces were of such brevity and concentration that the whole experience was most affecting, with lightly humourous asides, and even a fusillade of coughing and text messages near the end failed to penetrate their intensity. Two encores were given from the extracts, though perhaps most moving of all was Bach’s Actus Tragicus sinfonia, a haunting way to finish.