“GYÖRGY KURTÁG / JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Play with Infinity” = KURTÁG: Játékok (Games); KURTÁG / BACH: Atiratok (Transcriptions) [TrackList below] – Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès, piano four hands and two pianos – Hortus 082, 50:10 **1/2:
While Györy Ligeti had the good fortune to find an advocate in filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, fellow Hungarian composer György Kurtág (born 1926) had to go the usual route that composers take to win an international audience—get noticed and performed by major players in the music world. To be fair, Ligeti was already building a wider audience when the soundtrack to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave him instant name recognition around the world. For Kurtág, that wider audience came with the composition of several large-scale works in the 1980s. Since then, he has held composer-in-residence positions with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and other major institutions in Europe.
The first volume of Kurtág’s work in constant progress, Játékok, appeared in 1975. Presumably, the composer is still working away at it: he presented the two most recent volumes to the team of Dureau and Planès just before this recording was made in 2010. It seems Bach transcriptions remain a continuing project for the composer as well since a volume of transcriptions were delivered to the duo in the same package. So Györy Kurtág, whose recording of Játékok with his wife Márta must be accorded a special status, seems willing to pass on the torch to pianists Dureau and Planès: he and Márta worked with the duo on the creation of this recorded program.
Despite the name Játékok (Games), Kurtág’s work has a serious intent: it’s a series of exercises for pianists playing four-hands, at two pianos, and solo as well (Les Adieux and Aus der Ferne being the two solo numbers on the program). Some pieces, such as the aptly named Furious Chorale, have a violent energy (for example, in Sirató or Study to Pilinszky’s “Hölderlin”) that recalls Kurtág’s great compatriot Béla Bartók, though without Bartók’s syncopated motoric energy. Some have that misty, interstellar quality which first suggested György Ligeti’s music as soundtrack-fodder to Stanley Kubrick. But perhaps the best characterization of Kurtág’s art comes from the Web site of the composer’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes. There, Kurtág is described as “Heir to Webernian expressionism, favouring concentrated miniatures exploring a wide range of human emotions.” The combination of atonal musical language and Expressionistic emotional content seems to sum up these brief pieces well.
So perhaps it’s doubly surprising that Kurtág’s other ongoing project is so rooted in a tradition (Baroque counterpoint) that was considered outmoded before the great practitioner even left this veil of tears. I’m speaking of the Bach transcriptions, of course, which are done with such fidelity to the original that note writer Jean-Marc Chouvel can rightly claim, “Kurtág’s transcriptions are much more faithful to Bach than their 19th and 20th-century counterparts (like Busoni).” I would say “Amen” to this, except I would add that among nineteenth-century transcriptionists, Schumann maintained the greatest fidelity to the artistic aims of the original and thus came closest to the aesthetic of Kurtág’s Atiratok. Still, the fact that such an unfailing modernist as Kurtág could transcribe “old” music with such fidelity is a tribute to his artistic integrity. As Jean-Marc Chouvel notes, one transcription deserves special attention; it is the transcription of O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, BWV deest, in which “Kurtág goes so far as to imitate the original registration, doubling the upper voice, pianissimo and at the upper fifth, as would a nazard stop.” The result is spooky—haunting even. You think as you listen that an electronic keyboard is involved, though it is not.
Of course the unusual aspect of this program is to juxtapose the relentlessly modern/post-modern music of Játékok against the traditionalism of Atiratok. In a sense, there is little synergy; only occasionally does one piece bounce effectively off another, which happens when the jolly jog-trot of Bach’s Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her meets the similarly chordal and trotting, though turbulent, Furious Chorale. Other listeners may find more points of concordance. I just find the brief moments of synergy and the more frequent moments of disjunction an interesting insight into the disparate preoccupations of a major modern artist.
Pianists Dureau and Planès met at Indiana University, Bloomington, where Jean-Sébastien Dureau studied piano with György Sebök and where both pianists worked extensively with great cellist János Starker. So Hungarian music is in their blood, at least by adoption. I’ve already mentioned the obvious trust that György Kurtág has reposed in these musicians. For me, the performances seem to convey everything, in terms of technique and emotional insight, that Kurtág has built into these pieces. My chief objection to the recording is on technical grounds, and the problem is so galling that I can’t overlook it.
Either the venue—the Church of Saint Germain de Talloires, which, based on the illustrations in the booklet, is a vast space—or one of the pianos involved, introduces a buzz into the sound that’s impossible to filter out of the listening experience. This distraction occurs most often in the Bach transcriptions; that makes sense, since they feature more chordal writing, which means more keys are struck at any one musical moment. However, this issue puts such a damper on the experience that I can’t in conscience recommend this disc except on the merits of the performances. Otherwise, caveat emptor.
Play with Infinity
Das Alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 614
Hommage á Soprani
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, BWV deest
Bells (Hommage à Stravinsky)
Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn, BWV 601
Aus tiefer Not schrei; ’ich zu dir, BWV 687
Study to Pilinszky’s “Hölderlin”
Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her, BWV 711
Gott, durch deine Güte, BWV 600
Hommage à Halmágyi Mihály
Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV 643
Les Adieux (in Janáček’s manier)
Play with Infinity [version 2]
Christe, du Lamm Gottes, BWV 619
Hommage à JSB
Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Hebot, BWV 635
Responsorium (To Sir William Glock)
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, BWV 618
Pilinsky János: Keringo (for Zoltan Kocsis)
Christum wir sollen loben schon, BWV 611
Pilinsky János: Keringo (for Zoltan Kocsis) [version 2]
Botladozva (In memoriam Marianne Reismann)
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, BWV 633
Aus der Ferne
In Memoriam Sebök György
Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit-Sonatina
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich