You could never accuse György Kurtág of striving for effect. His music is such a private art form that you almost feel it doesn’t belong in public. It’s the art of saying as little as possible, as cryptically as possible – exercises in sound, to be shared by like-minded associates. Kurtág shuns publicity and breaks all rules of modern communication, yet he has a devoted following. Outside the circle there’s much mystification because this is not take-away music. It comes in the form of snippets – too miniaturist to be heard at a stretch, too subtle to stand comparison with the more voluble statements of music’s mainstream.
These thoughts are prompted by the first of three recitals organised by the Wigmore Hall for Kurtág’s 80th birthday. Kurtág has been the subject of regular surveys in London but this is the first to be programmed by another composer. It was an inspired idea to involve Thomas Adès, not least because he is such an electrifying pianist. The result on Wednesday was a near-full house – by Kurtág’s standards this is shameless popularity – and a fascinating juxtaposition of music.
But it didn’t do the revered Hungarian many favours. Placing Adès’s intense, affecting, fully joined-up Arcadiana at the heart of a Kurtág programme revealed how overweeningly fragmented the latter’s music is, and how generic the vocal writing seems, despite Valdine Anderson’s valiant attempts to persuade us otherwise. As in Adès’s Five Eliot Landscapes, in which Anderson seemed equally at home, the instrumental writing is more “personal” than anything either composer does with the voice. Kurtág’s Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs revealed a brilliant part for double-bass, excellently played by Corin Long, but these snippets on the inconsequentiality of life are really no more than interval music. The 6 Moments Musicaux, expertly played by the Keller Quartet, at least revealed something of Kurtág’s Magyar heart. ★★★☆☆
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