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Kurtágs Play Kurtág at the Library of Congress

György Kurtág, autograph score to Hommage à Bartók (first movement, "Adieu, Haydée I"), Library of Congress (photo by Robert Pohl)
György Kurtág has long been on the list of Ionarts favorite composers. As part of the 82-year-old Hungarian composer's first visit to the United States, the festival devoted to the Hungarian Cultural Year (infelicitously named Extremely Hungary) included a concert of historic importance on Saturday night at the Library of Congress. On April 13, 1940, violinist József Szigeti gave a concert with Béla Bartók at the Library of Congress, two days after the Hungarian composer had arrived in the United States. That concert was recorded on acetate discs, which have been transferred to CD (see this review), and Kurtág calls it an event "sacred for all Hungarian musicians." Continuing the legacy of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who helped so much to sustain Bartók's late career, the Library of Congress commissioned a new work by Kurtág, premiered at this concert by the composer and his wife, Márta Kurtág.

Hommage à Bartók is a suite of movements for piano, both two hands and four hands, dedicated to the memory of the 1940 concert. György played the first sections, twin movements dedicated to the memory of Haydée Charbagi, a professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Université Paris III) who died in September 2008. Márta played the last movement, titled Mártanak (her nickname -- yet another musical tribute by Kurtág to his muse), and husband and wife together played the middle movement, one of the composer's ongoing series of transcriptions of Bach chorale settings for piano, four hands. It was a typical combination for Kurtág, gentle aphorisms in glistening dissonances closer to his teacher, Messiaen, than anyone else, and the contrasting fascination with Baroque counterpoint and active textures.

György and Márta Kurtág, Library of Congress, February 7, 2009 (photo by Robert Pohl)
At the end of their performance, the couple handed the score over to Susan Vita, Chief of the Performing Arts Division at the Library of Congress -- a space had been left for it in the display case at the entrance to the auditorium.

While the Kurtágs played the new work on the Library's Steinway, they played the first half of this concert on an electronic keyboard, a remarkably sensitive instrument that afforded them a breath-taking control over the dynamic spectrum. They played an engaging series of selections from the collection Játékok, some for two hands and some for four, as well as examples of Kurtág's delightful arrangements of Bach chorale settings for organ, arranged for piano, four hands. (A similar program appears on the couple's 2000 ECM disc.)

Available from Amazon
Kurtág, Music for String Quartet, Keller Quartet

Available from Amazon
Kurtág, Játékok and Bach transcriptions, G. and M. Kurtág

Few composers of the last century have been so in touch with such a vast range of historical music; in that awareness of the past and of his own contemporaries, Kurtág emulates Bach even more clearly, that composer who copied and adapted so many other composers' works and demonstrated an encyclopedic tendency to catalogue and assimilate what he learned in his own works. On the other hand, Kurtág's tendency toward the miniature -- compact and wry, but never glib -- in some ways makes him the serious counterpart to that supreme clown, Erik Satie. More than the content of the individual pieces, it will be the images of the Kurtág duo, who have been married for sixty years, that linger in my mind: seated side by side on the piano bench, their arms often interlocked; when one played, the other stood by attentively, turning pages, and at one point even assisted with a distant bass cluster.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Kurtágs, From Hungary With Love (Washington Post, February 9)

Vivien Schweitzer, A Familial Collaboration on Music Defying Easy Classification (New York Times, February 3)

Benjamin Ivry, György Kurtág: Great Hungarian Jewish Composer, No Monk (Jewish Daily Forward, January 27)
The first work played by the Kurtágs, the "Canon at the Lower Fifth" from Bartók's Mikrokosmos, Book I, opened the circle that would be completed at the evening's end, joining the two Hungarian composers. The last two pieces were performed by the Keller Quartet, with first violinist András Keller playing on the exquisite 1733 Guarnieri del Gesù instrument donated to the Library by Fritz Kreisler. First it was an incredible third opportunity to review Kurtág's new work for string quartet, Six Moments Musicaux, op. 44 (heard twice last year, from the Parker Quartet and the Left Bank Quartet). In spite of a false start occasioned by one of the second violinist's strings coming out of place, it was another fine performance of a work, not yet recorded, that rewards repeated listening. The concert came full circle with a ruthlessly driven performance of Bartók's fifth string quartet, commissioned by none other than Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, premiered here at the Library of Congress in 1935.

The Library of Congress hosts two free concerts this week, the Mira Trio this evening (February 10, 8 pm) and the Atrium Quartet on Friday (February 13, 8 pm).

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