Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Kurtág: 80th Birthday Celebration @ Wigmore Hall, London

26 October 2006

The music of György Kurtág is currently undergoing major reappraisal as the Hungarian composer reaches his 80th birthday. Kurtág’s musical output has been economy personified, his compositions going through such a vigorous vetting process prior to first performance that only the very best work is published. In doing this Kurtág works closely with his wife Márta, with whom he will perform the two-piano set of games entitled Játékok as the third part in the Wigmore’s enterprising birthday celebrations.

For part two, however, we examined arguably Kurtág’s natural medium, the string quartet. This is a programme the Keller Quartet are extremely familiar with, juxtaposing Kurtág’s various quartets, movements and fragments with studies from JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue.

This works extremely well in performance, with applause purposely kept to the end of each half for the sake of continuity. The two composers effortlessly complement each other, the pure workings of Bach’s counterpoint anticipating keenly the expression and concision at work in Kurtág’s writing.

The first half majored on Bach, with six contrapuntal studies and a canon transcribing naturally for the unaffected sounds of the Keller Quartet. The clarity and fluidity of their interpretations was striking, the attention to detail in the light-footed rhythms of Contrapunctus II or the softly breathed viola opening to Contrapunctus III two notable highs.

By contrast Kurtág’s Twelve Microludes were, as their title implies, fragments of intensity, their beginning and end points barely perceptible as they hung on the air but their brief statements full of emotional content.

Even more focussed brevity and concentration was found after the interval, the open strings and D major reliance of the string trio Ligatura taking its lead from the tonality and performance of the first half Bach items.

Hommage à Johann Sebastian secured fascinating timbres and counterpoint, while the barely audible portamento whispers of Flowers for Zigmondy were stunning in their extreme restraint.

The two composers alternated once again until Kurtág’s more substantial Officium Breve In Memoriam Andrea Szervansky – that is, fifteen movements in as many minutes. The use of open strings, as if tuning up initially, contributed to the open air feel of much of this music, blown on the wind, while moments of harmonic beauty and unexpected unisons were pinpointed. Quoting from Webern and the composer Szervansky’s Serenade for Strings, the piece was both stark and yet offered glimpses of an affectionate warmth.

As Contrapunctus XVIII from the Art of Fugue was effectively completed by a second Ligatura for the Keller Quartet’s two violins, it was difficult not to see the two composers as one for an instant, the programme totally vindicated. Performance levels were extremely high throughout, if necessarily straight faced – a thoroughly absorbing look at Kurtág’s focussed and highly personal music.

The Keller Quartet are András Keller and János Pilz (violins), Zoltán Gál (viola) and Judit Szabó (cello).

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Kurtág: 80th Birthday Celebration @ Wigmore Hall, London