Tuesday 10 October 2017

Rich rewards: Kurtág complete from Asko|Schönberg & Reinbert de Leeuw

György Kurtág complete music for ensemble and choir - ECM
György Kurtág complete works for choir and ensemble; Reinbert de Leeuw, Asko|Schönberg, Netherlands Radio Choir; ECM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 03 2017 Star rating: 5.0
Often challenging, frequently fascinating, a brilliant survey of music by the great Hungarian composer

György Kurtág is a composer whose works continue to fascinate and challenge, with their very distinct and often distinctive sound world. On this valuable new three disc set from ECM New Series we have Kurtág's complete works for ensemble and choir. Reinbert de Leeuw conducts the Dutch new music ensemble Asko|Schönberg, which is joined by the Netherlands Radio Choir, Natalia Zagorinskaya (soprano), Gerrie de Vries (mezzo-soprano), Yves Saelens (tenor), Harry van der Kamp (bass), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Elliot Simpson (guitar), Tamara Stefanovich (piano) and Csaba Kiraly (pianino, spoken word).

György Kurtág
György Kurtág
The works on the disc are rarely for straightforward groups of performers, Kurtág seems to have been particularly attracted to mixed ensembles. So we have Four Capriccios for soprano and ensemble, For Songs to Poems by Janos Pilinsky for baritone and chamber ensemble, Messages of the Late Miss R Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble, Grabstein fur Stephan for guitar and groups of instruments grouped in space,  ...quasi una fantasia for piano and groups of instruments dispersed in space, Op.27 No2 Double Concerto for piano, cello and two chamber ensembles dispersed in space, Samuel Beckett: What is the Word for alto solo, voices and chamber ensembles dispersed in space, Songs of Despair and Sorrow for double mixed choir and instruments, Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova for soprano solo and instruments, Colinda-Balada for tenor solo, chorus and chamber ensemble and Brefs Messages for small ensemble.

One of the more frustrating aspects of this excellent release is that the CD booklet does not provide an easy digest of who is playing what in each of the above, to find out what the various ensembles consist of you have to read through Paul Griffiths' extensive booklet essay.

Kurtág's mature style seems to have come quite late in his career, most of the works on the disc date from the 1970s and later, and even the Four Capriccios (written 1959 to 1970) was revised in 1993. His international reputation very much dates from the 1980s, after the premiere of Messages of the Late Miss R Troussova at IRCAM in Paris in 1981. The most recent work on the disc seems to be Brefs Messages from 2011, and one of the fascinating things about the three discs is that though arranged semi-thematically, there is an historical timeline too so we can hear the changes and developments in Kurtág's style, but also the commonality, the thread which runs through all the works.

That style is characterised by a clarity of writing, a spareness which combines with brilliance and a sense that the whole is made up of tiny gestures, each of which matter intensely. Many of the works on the disc are made up of numerous small movements, each highly coloured, brilliant and intense. The edges are frequently jagged and Kurtág clearly likes taking things to extremes.

Four Capriccios, which sets poems by Istvan Balint, has four short movements each vividly different and all exploring extremes of emotion with vocalism which is not always comfortable. Four Songs to Poems by Janos Pilinszky is a highly colourful, quasi cabaret piece which receives a terrifically characterful delivery from Harry van der Kamp.

By contrast Grabstein fur Stephan is based around the central figure of a gently strumming guitar to which the dispersed instruments contribute atmospherics. Despite a central outburst of real drama, the overall impression is of intense yet muted colours. Massages from the Late Miss R. Troussova is perhaps his best known work. 21 short movements setting poems by Rimma Dalos involving the imaginary character expressing herself with brevity but great intensity of emotion. The work is not comfortable listening, it is not intended to be and the performers really convey the way the character moves swiftly between extremes of emotion. Yet always there is a translucency to Kurtág's scoring despite the jagged edges, he has a magical ear for timbre.

...quasi una fantasia and Op.27 No.2 are related pieces, both concerto like pieces the first for piano the second for piano and cello. Neither is, obviously, conventional and both were written for performers whom György Kurtág knew, notably his former pupil Zoltán Kocsis. ...quasi una fantasia involves rather spare writing for piano as it starts off almost unaccompanied and progressively interacts with the dispersed ensemble, busy vigorousness leading to climax and a calm, crystalline slow unwinding at the end. The double concerto involves surprisingly lyrical writing for the cello, with the piano seemingly restricted to heavy chords. The whole develops into a complex dialogue and even though the movements are long in duration (10:54, 7:09) you feel each is made up of smaller fragments.

Kurtág was much influenced by Samuel Beckett, and it was Beckett's death in 1989 which seemed to free Kurtág to write Samuel Beckett: What is the Word based on a Hungarian translation of Beckett. Here we have an alto solo, Gerrie de Vries, struggling with articulating the text, syllables coming out one by one as if painfully pulled out, followed by occasional torrents. The instrumental writing follows the sprech-stimme of the voice, so that instruments and voice often shadow each other. There are some dark and fascinating textures, it is a terrific piece. (Incidentally, I understand from one of my correspondents that this track was recorded with members of Capella Amsterdam, Marijke van der Harst, Åsa Olsson, Ross Buddie, Mattijs van de Woerd, Harry van der Kamp).

The final disc opens with Songs of Despair and Sorrow, settings of Russian poets for double mixed choir with instruments. The instruments support and comment, rather than providing a separate accompaniment, and Kurtág's writing for choir often uses opaque harmonies. The results are complex and often really evocative, with the different movements evoking highly different moods from the bleak, through edgy anxiety to lively folk-ish moments. The works mainly date from 1990-1986, but the composer put them aside and returned to them in 1993-94 whilst he was living in Berlin.

Even later are the Four Akhmatova Songs, written between 1997 and 2007, for soprano and ensemble. These are rather magical pieces, with an engaging and intense performance from  Natalia Zagorinskaya and spare but colourful instrumental writing (the final song even opens with sirens blazing). Colindá-Baladá is Kurtág's first setting of Romanian (he grew up in Lugoj in Romania, a city that then had substantial minorities whose first language was Hungarian or German). It is a long piece for chorus, tenor and chamber ensemble, and is quite a surprise. Dense at times and rather dramatic, it has surprising links to Stravinsky and Bartok and as it was written in 2006-2008 puts the other pieces in Kurtág's later output in an entirely different light.

Finally we return to miniatures with Bref Messages for small ensemble. This was assembled in 2010 but each movement has more complex history than that. We start with a very Stravinskian fanfare, before moving to what sounds folk-inspired material yet still with a Stravinsky hint (though the name 'Versetto: Temptavit Deus Abraham' indicates more complex, plainchant origins). There is a sense both of the composer looking back over his career but also traversing European musical history.

The performances on this disc are superb and the set is very much a labour of love. Kurtág's music is by turns challenging and fascinating, and demands intense concentration in listening but it pays rich rewards.

Update: Apologies for managing to get the name of the choir wrong, and many thanks to those who pointed it out. I also understand that the booklet omits to mention that What is the word was recorded with members of Capella Amsterdam, Marijke van der Harst, Åsa Olsson, Ross Buddie, Mattijs van de Woerd, Harry van der Kamp).

György Kurtág - Four Capriccios Op. 9
György Kurtág - Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky Op. 11
György Kurtág - Grabstein für Stephan Op. 15c
György Kurtág - Messages of the late Miss R. Troussova Op. 17
György Kurtág - ...quasi una fantasia... Op. 27 No.1
György Kurtág - Double Concerto Op. 27 No. 2
György Kurtág - Samuel Beckett: What is the word Op. 30b
György Kurtág - Songs of Despair and Sorrow Op. 18
György Kurtág - Songs to Poems by Anna Akhmatova Op. 41
György Kurtág - Colindá-Baladá Op. 46
György Kurtág - Brefs Messages Op. 47
Natalia Zagorinskaja Soprano
Harry van der Kamp Bass
Elliott Simpson Guitar
Tamara Stefanovich Piano
Jean-Guihen Queyras Violoncello
Gerrie de Vries Mezzosoprano
Csaba Király Pianino, Spoken Word
Yves Saelens Tenor
Netherlands Radio Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)
Recorded in Amsterdam’s Musikgebouw and Haarlem’s Philharmonie between March 2013 and July 2016
ECM2505-07 3CDS
Available from Amazon.

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  1. Dear Robert Hugill,
    Thanks so much for your extensive review.I am one of the proud artists who have been blessed to be a
    part of this project.
    I would however like to point out you have mixed up The Netherlands Radio Choir, which is the choir singing this Kurtág, with the Netherlands Chamber Choir, which is NOT singing on this particular CD.
    Any chance of correcting that error?
    Thanks again!

  2. Dear Robert Hugill,
    will you please be so kind to correct the sencence in which it says the Netherlands Chamber Choir is participating at this CD recording. It really is a different choir. So please correct this to Netherlands Radio Choir.
    With kind regards,
    Ria Raven, office manager Netherlands Radio Choir


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