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György Kurtág Box Set: A “Royal Gift” Conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw

“Thanks for this royal gift,” writes György Kurtág (b. 1926) in the album on which Reinbert de Leeuw conducts all his choir and ensemble music. The 11 pieces, lasting only 2.5 hours in all, took three years to record. No waste of time, for Asko|Schönberg, Dutch Radio Choir, and soloists perform at the best of their abilities, getting to the heart of Kurtág’s harrowing music. This cd-box is a true monument to the Hungarian master of the concise musical gesture.

“It’s as though they had recorded the music in their own language,” Kurtág said in a moving video message during a concert in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ last October. Such abundant praise is remarkable from the notoriously critical Hungarian composer, who is parsimonious with compliments. But ever since he worked with De Leeuw on Messages from the late Miss R.V. Troussova in 1995, he has come to regard him as his ideal interpreter. No wonder, for the Dutch conductor will go out of his way to realize the composer’s intent.

Kurtág developed an utterly personal language, built from tormented, aphoristic sounds welling up from an existentialist necessity. The sheer intensity and raw beauty of his grim, dark, and desperate sound world affects one to the bone. This cd-box offers one concatenation of highlights, which makes it tough to pick out individual compositions. Yet especially heartrending is Samuel Beckett: What is the Word. Kurtág composed it in 1991 for the Hungarian actress and singer Ildikó Monyók. It was his contribution to her effort of regaining control over her voice, which she had lost in a traffic accident. Her stuttering, almost tangibly painful performance was a crushing experience. Monyók died in 2012, but the mezzosoprano Gerrie de Vries is an excellent alternative. With her hoarse, gritty stammering, she makes you involuntary grab your throat–as if you are prevented from speaking yourself.

Kurtág often explores the limits of what a human voice can do. In the first of the Four Songs on Poems by Janós Pilinszky, the bass Harry van der Kamp produces a plethora of sounds on only one note, accompanied by a simple drone. The Russian soprano Natalia Zagorinskaya shines in the Troussova Songs, a cycle of 21 songs on the bitter experiences of an abandoned lover. She croons seductively, yells out angrily, or laughs sarcastically. The ensemble at times references Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire, with atmospheric solos from horn and cimbalom. 

Composer György Kurtág

Composer György Kurtág

Lesser known are Songs of Despair and Sorrow for choir and instruments, on texts by Russian poets. In some 20 minutes, the Dutch Radio Choir veers from ominous whispering to shattering shrieks, from soothing lament to exhilarated joy. Sometimes Kurtág seems to transport us to a Russian village party–the penetrating sound of a bayan included. Another seldom heard gem is Colindă-Baladă for tenor, choir and ensemble. It is based on a Rumanian Christmas song (colindă) Bartók also used in his Cantata profana. Here, we perhaps most clearly hear Kurtág’s Transylvanian roots.

‘My mother tongue is Bartók, whose mother tongue was Beethoven’, Kurtág once said. His stirring, Beethoven-inspired … quasi una fantasia … for piano and ensemble is a modern classic. Grabstein für Stephan, with its simple, recognizable motif on the guitar’s open strings may almost be called popular. As well known, but lesser performed is the Double Concerto for piano, cello and spatially arranged ensemble, with the pianist Tamara Sfefanovich and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras responding immaculately to an equally flawless Asko|Schönberg.

Kurtág demands the utmost from his performers, who must realize the slightest inflections he has in mind. Yet his notation is sometimes faulty and he is wont to change his mind. At 91, he was too fragile to attend the recording sessions personally, but he was extensively consulted before and after. Some takes–and even entire compositions–were done anew. The recording on the adventurous German label ECM is immaculate. Not a matter of course with volumes ranging from ear-splitting fortissimi to barely audible pianissimi. This album is a “royal gift” indeed–to Kurtág, of course, but perhaps even more so to us, his listeners.

You can hear selections from this album in Thea’s programme Panorama de Leeuw on Concertzender: 5 July 2017 and 2 August 2017