Getting to Know György

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

György Kurtág (b. 1926) is old. Really old.

If his music sounds young—somehow new—that may simply be due to his having labored in the shadows of Messiaen, Ligeti, Cage, et al. all these years. Or it may prove some version of what Schoenberg said in the First Golden Age of Atonal Expressionism: there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.

Once in a while C major does peek through in Kurtág’s works. For Kurtág, though, we should insist on a corollary: there’s still plenty of good music to be written within the radical economies and expressive extremes of post-Webern, post-tonal musical language.

You remember Webern. An acolyte of Schoenberg, he made music of shocking brevity and emotional power over a hundred years ago:


Webern’s music can be cryptic, mysterious. He seldom says anything twice. (Compare that with Wagner, or Philip Glass!) But Webern teaches us the beauty of surprise, of violent contrast, of understatement as well. Kurtág proved to be the grasshopper who learned his lessons well. In the age of Glass and Pärt, he created equally brave new worlds from minimal and simple.

Listen, for example, to Kurtág’s Opus 1, his first “authentic” work, written in Paris between 1957 and ’59. Romanian by birth, he had studied for years in Budapest, a city with a rich artistic heritage but one in which Communist authorities kept a stranglehold on artistic activity. In Paris Kurtág’s encounters with the lectures of Milhaud and Messiaen at the Conservatoire, with the music of Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Webern at Domaine Musicale concerts, and in therapy with psychologist Marianne Stein opened vital new creative doors for him. When Stein urged him to simplify his working methods as a means of overcoming a desperate case of “composer’s block,” here’s how he responded:

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Okay, definitely more robust and direct than Webern. But listen to the colors! All those textural twists, hard snaps and glissandos, filmy fadeouts and crashing blows. Remarkable for a string quartet, even considering the precedents set by Bartók, another major influence. Nor was Kurtág afraid to repeat things:

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These are from Quatuor Molinari’s 2016 Kurtág: Complete String Quartets (ATMA Classique ACD2 2705). It’s sequenced chronologically, so you can trace the composer’s development from Op. 1 (1959) to Arioso: Hommage à Walter Levin 85 (2009). Plus, these are terrific performances by a young Canadian quartet that lives and breathes new music.

And yet you may not want to start your Kurtág journey with the quartets. A better choice will be available in a few days: György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM 2505–07; 3 CDs; 24/96 download promised from HD Tracks). Its varied offerings present an even more comprehensive, compelling Kurtág portrait. Good for beginners, absolutely essential for hardcore fans.

The title may be misleading. By “ensemble,” the curators of these discs mean one-on-a-part instrumental groups, anywhere from two to twenty-odd players, sometimes dispersed within the performance space, sometimes featuring solo singers or a choir. Such an approach allows for maximum individual expressivity and a balance of intimacy and power, which serves Kurtág’s disparate creative impulses well. Paradoxically, his reliance on simplicity—in many distinctive disguises—emerges more clearly than ever. As conductor Reinbert de Leeuw says,

I was completely overwhelmed by the simple means Kurtág needs to create his own musical universe. How is it possible that just playing the open strings of a guitar as in the opening bars of “Grabstein für Stephan” followed by the pianino taking over these chords is breathtaking?

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A lot more “breathtaking” stuff follows. Think of Kurtág’s relationship to the Western canon as roughly similar to the relationship between wine and cognac—or better yet, some peasant distillation like grappa or slivovitz. You and your friend can put away quite a bit of wine and still walk home, whereas the equivalent volume of grappa will put you both under the table. There’s a limit to how much Kurtág I can handle without slipping into Beethoven or Dvořák to clear my head. It’s that concentrated. Here are snippets from  . . . quasi una fantasia . . ., Kurtág’s own Op. 27 No. 1:

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Even the four complete movements are quite short; only the last lingers more than a couple of minutes. Yet what drastic contrasts mark them! One must listen closely, and when one does—when one truly opens up to these sounds—the effects are devastating.

I’m not quite so drawn to Kurtág’s vocal music. In an essay included in ECM’s program booklet, Paul Griffiths may have put his finger on it:

[This music] does not need a physical voice to utter, any more than it needs a physical body in order to be corporeal, and to affect us corporeally. Indeed, we may well feel that Kurtág’s instruments . . . shout the more vehemently, sing the more sweetly.

Just so. Nevertheless, here are characteristic bits of two provocative Kurtág song settings:

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You took
my heart on the palm of your hand,
which you then carefully turned upside down. 
(Rimma Dalos)

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Bend down. (Bends to the ground.)
Stand erect. (Rises slowly up.)
Take off your shirt and underpants.
(Takes them off one by one.)
Turn and face.
(Turns away. Then faces him.)
Put on your clothes.
(Puts them back on.) 
(János Pilinszky)

Many more such surprising moments lie within this stunning new collection. It was recorded in Amsterdam and Haarlem over a four-year period with the sort of consistent care that, in a better world, would make it an absolute must-own for audiophiles. At the very least we should be thankful to Manfred Eicher and his New Series team for their patient watchfulness over the project, and for their wise decision to issue everything together at once.

Over the years Kurtág has also written dozens of minature minatures, little pieces for children and others with short attention spans (or else a refined appreciation for atoms and molecules). You should sample them. My current favorites are those collected as Jelek, játékok és üzenetek (Signs, Games and Messages) for viola solo, played by the remarkable Kim Kashkashian on another ECM release. Here is part of the riveting “In Nomine  all’ongherese” that leads off her recital:

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The composer and his wife Márta are well-known for piano-four-hands performances of the Játékok for keyboard. Others have waxed more poetically over their appearances than I could ever hope to do. But they’re worth checking out, a loving couple united by their sensitivity to great music past and present. (Go to YouTube and click “Show More” to see the entire set list.)


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