The three-piece CD box with choir and ensemble works by György Kurtág is overwhelming. His soul-piercing sounds are sublimely interpreted by Reinbert de Leeuw et al. Also, the recording is impeccable. This box is already historic, a monument to the Hungarian master, who turned 91 last February.
Kurtág’s existentialist music has been performed in The Netherlands since the mid-1970s, by pioneers such as the pianist Geoffrey Madge and Residentie Orkest (The Hague Philharmonic). However it gained real fame only after the 1990s, when Reinbert de Leeuw became its tireless promoter. De Leeuw dedicated many memorable concerts to this master of the concise gesture, with whom he forged a close bond.
On this edition of the adventurous German label ECM, Reinbert has even surpassed himself. With his unwavering urge to push for the essence of a composition, he inspired Asko|Schönberg, Dutch Radio Choir, Cappella Amsterdam and a selection of soloists to realize intense and animated interpretations.
Kurtág was too fragile to attend the recordings personally, but was consulted extensively before and after each session. He is very pleased with the result: “It’s as though they had recorded the music in their mother tongue.” He spoke these words in a moving video message during a portrait concert in Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in 2016.
A telling statement, for language is extremely important to Kurtág – in more ways than one. He created a completely personal grammar from tormented, aphoristic sounds, that well up from a deep inner necessity. Reinbert de Leeuw mastered this language like no other. Seven of the eleven pieces on the compilation are vocal. Kurtág even learnt Russian to read Dostoevsky; three cycles are set in this language.
Complete novel in seconds
Of these the best known is Messages from the late Miss R.V. Troussova, which signalled his breakthrough in Western Europe in the 1980s. In 21 miniatures, a soprano relates bitter love experiences. The longest song lasts 3 minutes, the shortest 22 seconds. However, in these brief periods of time, Kurtág sketches complete novels.
The Russian soprano Natalia Zagorinskaya brings across every subtle nuance, her pure and secure voice moving effortlessly between the highest and lowest registers. In the equally flawless ensemble – with atmospheric horn and cimbalom – we hear references to Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Zagorinskaya also shines in Achmatova Songs which Kurtág dedicated to her, and in Four Capriccios on texts by István Bálint. These originated between 1959 and 1973 and form the opening of the CD-box, which is chronologically arranged.
Lesser known pearls
Some pieces may almost be called popular. For instance Grabstein für Stephan, with its simple, recognizable motif on the guitar’s open strings. The Beethoven-inspired … quasi una fantasia … for piano and ensemble is a modern classic, too. Equally well known, but less often played is the Double Concerto for piano, cello and ensemble, with pianist Tamara Stefanovich and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras as superb soloists.
There are also lesser known pearls. Like the Four Songs on Poems by János Pilinszky, with the glorious baritone Harry van der Kamp. The Songs of Despair and Sorrow for choir and instruments are not often performed either. In some 20 minutes, the Dutch Radio Choir switches between ultra-soft whispering, shattering shrieks, desolate lament and excited joy. At times we seem to find ourselves at a Russian village party – Kurtág even included a bayan, a Russian accordion.
The highlight is Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, composed in 1991 for the Hungarian actress and singer Ildikó Monyók. She lost her voice in a traffic accident, but recovered it with utmost effort. Grunting and groaning, her pain almost tangible for the audience, she sang a poem about aphasia by Samuel Beckett, in a Hungarian translation. A crushing experience – live as well as on cd.
Monyók died in 2012, but Reinbert de Leeuw was determined to record the piece anew. The extremely critical Kurtág resolutely rejected every suggestion – until he heard a recording by the mezzosoprano Gerrie de Vries. “We found her!”, he called out. And he is right. With her hoarse, gritty voice De Vries makes you involuntary grab your throat. – As if you are prevented from speaking yourself.
In short, music, performance and recording are immaculate. The only minor point is the somewhat awkward documentation. The performers are not listed together with the pieces, but elsewhere in the booklet, and the name of Cappella Amsterdam is missing. You have to find out for yourself how long a piece lasts; on the individual cd-covers even track numbers are missing.
Troublesome for radio programmers such as me. For the rest: nothing but praise. As a matter of fact I’m airing the recordings in several episodes of my programme Panorama de Leeuw. – Kurtág’s music cannot be heard often enough.