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Last Thursday brought the second concert in the Wigmore series celebrating György Kurtág, the 80-year-old doyen of Hungarian composers, and this time we had his wife Márta too.
Both the Kurtágs are excellent pianists, and on the upright piano provided for them (obviously at their request: they must think a grand piano pretentious, for they have no time for concert airs) they played solos and duets, with their backs to us. The composer wore street clothes, of course; any notion that a serious recital entails formal dress would strike him as quite ridiculous.
Many Hungarians, I think, feel the same way, unlike many Brits who go to hear music on the South Bank or at the Barbican. Budapest halls are full of people in demotic dress, except for parties who plan to go on afterwards to some grand ball. (This is, of course, true of English National Opera audiences too.) The Viennese-operetta vision of dashing, flamboyant Magyar blades is plain wrong, and probably always was: just a fantasy about their exotic eastern neighbours, who in real life spoke a disconcertingly non-European language related to nothing heard on the proper Continent, but dressed rather well.
One could hardly brand this whole recital as “demotic”, for the first part of it was played solo by the elegantly dressed Tokyo violinist Hiromi Kikuchi. She gave the UK premiere of Kurtág’s Hipartita, whose title is an arch echo of Bach’s great solo partitas: sets of formalised dance-movements, sometimes concluding with a specially spectacular one. (The “Hi-” is the beginning of its dedicatee’s first name.) Kurtag adopted the form, as in the opening sarabande, but over several years he decided to weld all the movements into a single, continuous one (extreme economy has always been close to this composer’s heart: “pithy” is the epithet critics favour). He has rarely been content to leave a work as he originally conceived it.
And here the melting and combining have worked beautifully: one dance becomes another almost before we realise it. There are deliberate quotes from two of Kurtág’s favourite composers, Schumann and Bartók, but they are deftly stirred into the brew – rather as Schumann himself used sometimes to do. Kikuchi’s grand poise and clarity were exemplary, just as required, stylish but also knowing.
Kurtág’s Játékok (”Games”) is a collection to which he repeatedly added (while he was still composing: now, at 80, he has preferred to stop). It was always partly pedagogical, a rich variety of piano pieces for solo and duet-playing students. There is no overall sequence; many numbers were designed for labouring beginners, but some require serious pianism. There is a kind of laconic, shining openness about them all, demanding a rare degree of directness and humility from their performers. Again, other composers are lovingly cited, in the most natural way imaginable, but it all sounds like Kurtág talking, or teaching, or humbly admiring.
Here, of course, Kurtág and his wife played their Játékok pieces simply and pithily, taking solo turns and collaborating in duets on their single upright piano. I did think that a defiant gesture, but no doubt the Kurtágs are deeply green: why wheel on a concert grand, when it’s the notes, not any virtuoso execution, that matter? We were treated – almost chasteningly – to plain, honest music-making of a high order, and many of us must have felt that the next virtuoso performance we hear may seem insufferably chic.
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