At the end of this recital György Kurtág was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal. It was hard not to smile at the ceremony, as the Society’s chairman, John Gilhooly, found himself reading out the citation while the 87-year-old composer peered inquisitively over his shoulder following the text.
As the citation said, albeit in more flowery language, Kurtág is a “one-off”. While other composers have sought to find their place in avant-garde musical tribes, or court public attention, Kurtág has stayed inimitably himself, composing short, very private pieces, often just two or three minutes long, that are reluctant to give up their secrets.
A public performance of his music is always an intimate affair. The first half of this recital, part of Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival, was taken up with the Hipartita for solo violin, composed between 2000 and 2004. In true Kurtág style, this consists of eight short movements, several labelled as tributes to friends or artists, and each a highly concentrated miniature, played with poise and intensity by Hiromi Kikuchi.
Then György and Márta, his wife, settled down for a second half of piano duets and solos. Rather than the usual grand piano, they decided to play on an upright. The instrument had taken them an age to select, but even so it needed amplification, and the result was a dull, distant, clunky noise, like a honky-tonk piano with a cloth covering the hammers – very odd. Undeterred, they played excerpts from Játékok (“Games”), Kurtág’s ongoing collection of miniatures, including the premiere of a new movement, a three-minute tribute to Márta, based on a simple minor chord – soft, pensive, heartfelt.
As a thank-you for his award (Kurtág explained he is not a “man of words”), they ended with a set of Mozart variations for piano duet, every bit as softly spoken and withdrawn as anything before. It was as if we were interlopers at a family evening in the Kurtágs’ home. In 2015, the Salzburg Festival is due to present Kurtág’s first opera, Fin de partie, based on the Beckett play, Endgame. It is hard to imagine. How will this most private of composers fare in the public world of opera?