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S&H Festival Report

Hungarian Spring; Kurtag Festival Queen Elizabeth Hall and Foyer, 20 April 2002 (PGW)


Four Kurtag events straddled a long half day at South Bank Centre to inaugurate the second part of Hungarian Spring, in association with the Hungarian Cultural Centre, which had featured his equally eminent compatriot Peter Eotvos for its opening at St Paul's Covent Garden, that failing to attract media attention elsewhere. Partly on account of his fame as a demanding but well-loved teacher, György Kurtag is being celebrated in London with an extensive retrospective Festival, with his compositions spread thinly and divided between South Bank and the Royal Academy of Music, where he is installed as Composer in Residence for the duration.

The last was best, so shall be first. Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova, one of Kurtag's most substantial and successful works, was revived to spell binding effect by Claron McFadden and London Sinfonietta, steered by Markus Stenz to the composer's evident satisfaction. The 21 songs take 25 mins, start short and get progressively shorter, the last of three sections a sequence of minuscule but powerful aphorisms, requiring virtuoso singing and emotional expressivity with instantaneous mood changes. Ms McFadden equalled memories of the work's creator, Kurtag's regular vocal interpreter, Adrienne Csengery (hear her with Boulez and Ensemble InterContemperain on Erato 2292-45410-2). In QEH the detailed subtleties of the orchestration amply justified each musician's place in the intricate jewel-like mechanism, and it quickly drove away residual traces of a dull first half; Stockhausen's allegedly seminal totally-serial Kontrapunctus, sounds without meaning for this listener, and Nono's portentous Ommaggio a György Kurtag (1986 version) with complex electronic transformations of slow and seemingly simple music for contralto and three instrumentalists.

By contrast with the Troussova Messages, during the afternoon an indulgently augmented Endymion Ensemble (with four Pigini accordions, two harmoniums, 6 percussionists and what not else) accompanied a full quorum of the BBC Singers to surprisingly little colouristic effect in Kurtag's settings of less than jolly Songs of Despair and Sorrow; there can never be many opportunities to hear these in live, professional performances. Far more rewarding were some of Bartok's insufficiently familiar Hungarian Folksongs and Kodaly's Matra pictures, which preceded the Kurtag item, 'orchestrated' to great effect by the singers on their own in accounts that were lovingly shaped by David Jones; the 20.C choral repertoire thrives in a largely separate world, similar to that for the organ.

Those events were separated by a children's show, of a sort that the UK new music establishment puts on with great seriousness, contrasting with some more imaginative displays seen elsewhere. Well-disciplined small persons deployed pianos and percussion, their 'compositions' announced by their project leader to have been 'inspired by György Kurtag', the performances abetted by three patient London Sinfonietta musicians. The kids were subjected to inordinate reinforcement and over-praise for minimal achievement. For parents supporting their children within the Lambeth primary school itself this would be fine, but there is a risk (or should it be a hope?) that for some of them, these South Bank Centre premieres will feature in future composers CVs! There were no press tickets available to cover the source of their inspiration, Kurtag's Jatekok books for one or two pianists, but it was easy to recall from previous occasions the marital tenderness which Mr & Mrs Kurtag bring to their cross-handed intimacies, and these fruitful instruction pieces are available for piano teachers and for all to enjoy in their definitive account of a selection of them on ECM 453 511-2.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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