György KURTÁG – in memoriam György Szoltsányi (1988)


Johann Sebastian BACH – Ricercar a tre voci (1747)


G.K. – Spiel mit dem Unendlichen (1979)


Béla BARTÓK – Colinda (2ème série, nr 6) (1915)


G.K. – Erinnerungsbrocken aus einer Kolindenmelodie (1979)


B.B. – Colinda (2ème série, nr 2) (1915)

J.S.B./B.B. – Sonata BWV 530 – Vivace / Lento (transcription 1929)

B.B. – Hommage à J.S.B.(Mikrokosmos – 1926/37)


G.K. – Praeludium und Choral (1962/79/81)

G.K. – Aus der Ferne I (1981)

G.K. – Glocken für Margit Mándy (1982)


J.S.B. – Fuga a 3(4?) soggetti (Kunst der Fuge – unvollendet ?)


G.K. – Eine Blume für Nuria (1990)


Luigi NONO – …sofferte onde serene… (1976)

(tape : Maurizio Pollini (Ricordi))


G.K. – Aus der Ferne II (1986)

G.K. – Virág az ember… (Menschen wie Blumen, nur Blumen…)(2000)


J.S.B. – Ricercar a sei voci (1747)


György KURTÁG – Marina Zwetaewa : ‘Es ist an der Zeit…’ (1991)




Claude Debussy once said that Johann Sebastian Bach’s music says everything possible that can be expressed by music…The Art of Fugue, The Musical Offering and the Mass in B minor form together a kind of musical testament : music in its purest and most uncompromising form. In the imposing quadruple fugue recorded here the music is interrupted at the point where the first three themes (of which the third is bearing Bach’s musical signature) are interwoven – it has been shown that the basic theme of the Art of Fugue must have been the fourth theme…

To know the circumstances of the genesis of the Musical Offering it can be interesting to read this newspaper article of 1747 : “The King [Frederick II of Prussia] took his place at the instrument known as the pianoforte [!] and (…) was precious enough to play a theme on which Kappelmeister Bach was to improvise a fugue (…). Bach was so impressed by the beauty and the complexity of the theme he had been given that it is his intention to weave it into a full fugue (…).”. These lines could defend the interpretation of the ‘ricercar a tre voci’ as a recollection of Bach’s improvisation and of the ‘ricercar a sei voci’ as the ‘full’ fugue. The title ‘ricercar’ evokes anyway the spirit of inquiry from which the Musical Offering sprang : the result was a masterpiece of human invention – exploring, just like the Art of Fugue, one of the central ideas of Western musical thinking-counterpoint-to its utmost limits.

When one hears Bartók’s astonishing transcription of Bach’s trio sonata for organ BWV 530 and his touching miniature-like ‘Hommage à J.S.B.’ (from ‘Mikrokosmos’ – in the words of László Somfai ‘an exceptionally detailed guide to Bartók’s whole world and a potential key to the hidden narrative of several of his major compositions’) , nobody can be surprised by Bartók’s description of his musical roots ; according to his words his music rests on tradition and should entail a synthesis of Bach’s polyphony, Beethoven’s thematic treatment and Debussy’s colouring, expressed in his Hungarian mother tongue, the essence of which he had discovered in ‘peasant music’…

György Kurtág says today : “My mother tongue is Bartók …” And about his ‘Erinnerungsbrocken aus einer Kolindenmelodie’ from ‘Játékok’ (‘Games’) he wrote : “It is a piece with a logic that is not purely musical, but also very dreamlike.” Kurtág remembers the ‘colinda’ (a ceremonial song or Christmas carol sung in Roumanian villages) “from his childhood” – and in this nocturnal monologue memories become sound. Bartók discovered these old treasures and added quite simple but ingenious, diary-like accompaniments to the melodies. In a way the partly didactic purpose of Játékok (Kurtág concentrates in the first volumes on inherent relationships of musical identities to physical gestures – like the slow glissando in ‘Spiel mit dem Unendlichen’) places it in a clear line of descent to Bartók’s ‘Mikrokosmos’. But Kurtág also unites the Hungarian idiom with the concentration of Anton Webern attempting to represent his thoughts and emotions in the fewest possible notes and in the smallest possible forms – an austere highly charged music in which-at the same time-every note assumes tremendous expressive importance.

One of the main sentences of Kurtág’s own introduction to ‘Játékok’ is the following : “Let’s use everything we know and remember about free declamation, about the parlando-rubato of folk music, about Gregorian music, and let’s make use of everything improvisation has ever brought forth.”. On the other hand these miniatures could be compared to Haiku poems – and indeed : Kurtág gave the title ‘Ars Poetica’ to the last of his Songs opus 22 (for soprano and cimbalon) on the following text of Issa Kobayashi : “It is slowly, gently, carefully how you will climb, snail, / The Mount Fuji.”. This poem describes also very faithfully the teaching method of Kurtág, who is in constant demand for masterclasses (but not for teaching composition, which he says he cannot do). Those lucky to have been taught by him can testify how he pursues the threads of a piece (by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and many others) in immense detail, always taking enormous pains over the smallest of sections : a process of sincere and subjective purification, in a continuous search for musical perfection. Teaching is of tremendous importance to him and he has confessed that he uses it for his own ends… Kurtág’s music is deeply rooted in European tradition. It is an astonishing fact that a composer who exhibits such great respect for all expressive art can incorporate such a musical diversity in his oeuvre and still speak his own languague in every gesture. ‘Játékok’ -started in the seventies- consists of ‘scenes in miniature, in which the world is refracted like rays of light sparkling in precious gems’ [Jürg Stenzl].

On this recording we hear for instance a rich aria on and around middle C (‘in memoriam György Szoltsányi’), a ‘Praeludium’ erupting from the disquiet of our time, immediately followed by a delicately vibrating ‘Chorale’. In ‘Es ist an der Zeit’, one of Kurtág’s ‘Songs of Despair and Sorrow’ we hear his fascination for the Russian language – the text under the music is the following : ” The time is there to take off the amber, the time is there to change the words, the time is there to put off the lights at the door.”. The human struggle with time is one of the basic features of Kurtág’s music. A motto he often uses – ‘Virág az ember (Men are but flowers’) refers to a saying of the lutheran preacher Péter Bornemisza, used for the first time in the third section (‘Death’!) of his ‘Sayings of Péter Bornemisza’ opus 7 (for soprano and piano). Both pieces with the Schumann-like title ‘Aus der Ferne’ are written in honour of the publisher Alfred Schlee and give space to a typically Bartókian dialogue between the ‘voice of the landscape’ and the ‘human voice’. As we can read in almost every Kurtág-title, his music has an unusually vital relationship to the living and the dead… : Alfred Schlee, György Szoltsányi, Margit Mándy and Nuria Schönberg-Nono are honoured in this recording:  every dedicatee is incorporated in the work itself – they are given a sound shape in music. That’s exactly what Kurtág did in his ‘Omaggio a Luigi Nono’ (1979) for unaccompanied chorus – and Nono answered with an ‘Omaggio a György Kurtág’, using as raw vocal material just the phonemes derived from Kurtág’s name. Some weeks after the sudden death of Nono in 1990, Kurtág wrote ‘Eine Blume für Nuria’…

Nono’s ‘…sofferte onde serene…’ also sprang from the spheres of death : ” While my friendship with Maurizio Pollini, as well as my astonished awareness of his pianism, grows more profound, a hard wind of death swept ‘the infinite smile of the waves’ in my family and Pollini’s. This common experience brought us yet closer together in the sadness of the infinite smile of ‘…sofferte onde serene…’ [‘…serene waves endured…’].” In this work for piano and two-channel-tape Nono derives an enormous variety of nuances from different kinds of attack and pedal-use, from stamps on the pedal that set the whole instrument reverberating or from careful electronic modifications … : musical musings on identity. The setting of the work is Venezia ( the channel-patchwork of this city could be seen as a metaphor for the ‘polifonia ricercata’ in this recording) : “In my house, on the Giudecca in Venice, the sounds of various bells reach us continuously, resounding in different ways, with different meanings, day and night, traversing the fog or in the sun. They are the signs of life on the lagoon, on the sea. Exhortations to work, to meditation, advice. And life continues in the endured and serene necessity of the ‘equilibrium of the profound interior’, as Kafka says.(…) Neither contrasting nor counterpoint.(…) Not ‘episodes’ which are exhausted in succession, but ‘memories’ and ‘presences’ which are superposed, as memories, as presences that themselves blend together with the ‘serene waves’.”

As early as 1959 Nono gave a lecture in Darmstadt with the title ‘The presence of history in the music of today” in which he defends the composer who appropriates history by the present – this could read also like a key to Kurtág’s style. And they could have read together the following sentence (that inspired Nono to some powerful compositions in the eighties) marked on the wall of a thirteenth century franciscan cloister in Toledo : “Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar.” (“Pilgrim, there is no pathway, there is only travelling itself.’ – ‘Pilger, es gibt keinen Weg, es gibt nur das Weitergehen.”).

Our human ‘ricercar’ remains unfinished … for ever : let us enjoy the playing ‘with infinity’.

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