György KurtágMusik für Streichinstrumente
Musik für Streichinstrumente continues ECM's association with Hungarian composer György Kurtág, initiated with the recording of his Schumann tribute Hommage ŕ R. Sch., op.15d, Jelek, op. 5, and the Neun Stücke für Viola solo (ECM New Series 1508).The new album, which focuses on chamber music written between 1959 and 1991, also marks the label debut of the Keller Quartet, increasingly regarded as one of the most impressive contemporary string quartets.András Keller, János Pilz, Zoltán Gal, and Ottó Kertész are graduates of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where they studied with Kurtág. They founded the Keller Quartet in 1987 while still students and, in 1990, made headlines by winning the two most important European string quartet competitions, the Evian and the Borciani, within a four-week period - collecting not only the first prizes in each instance, but also all additional prizes.From its inception, the quartet has demonstrated its mastery of a wide range of repertoire, from Beethoven to Kurtág, via Schubert, Dvorak, Schoenberg, Bartók, Ligeti, Denisov and much more, virtually the entire spectrum of quartet music. Recordings by the Keller Quartet of the complete Bartók cycle for Erato, in particular, have met with international acclaim. To quote Sándor Vegh, "They have entered into the very soul of these works and conveyed that soul to their listeners."For Quartet leader András Keller one of the most important aspects of the work is the relationship with György Kurtág. As he told journalist Reinmar Wagner in an interview for Swiss magazine Musik & Theater: "It is a great good fortune to be in such close contact with one of the most important contemporary composers. To work with him is, simultaneously, very beautiful and very hard. Because he is always moving, because there is no wrong and right. He demands that one lives in the music, from moment to moment. And that's what we've learned from him: whatever we play, to live in that music."
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Kurtág was already 33 years old when he designated his first string quartet his Opus no. 1 in 1959. Behind him were years of reckoning with the music of Bartók ("my mother tongue") and Kodály, and writing pieces influenced by both of these composers, amongst them a viola concerto and a suite for piano. His outlook broadened after attending composition classes of Messiaen and Milhaud in Paris as well as the Domaine Musical concerts organized by Boulez. Comparably inspirational were his encounters with the music of Webern and Stockhausen (Gruppen in particular) and his association and friendship with György Ligeti. Ligeti has recalled his first encounters with his fellow composer, three years his junior, and detailed how he was impressed by "Kurtág's timidity, his introverted attitude and his total lack of vanity or presumption. He was intelligent, sincere, and simple in a highly complex way." The latter description - simple in a highly complex way - can effectively summarize much of the music on the present disc: it is music in which almost every small gesture is loaded with a profusion of allusions, cross-references and private meanings. Paul Griffiths observes (in Modern Music And After) that in Kurtág's art "a world of feeling" opens "with a few quick strokes", as if the composer's method were to "start with nothing, take nothing for certain, and then make something utterly simple, utterly trustworthy."His official opus one, the Quartetto per archi, made an impact at the ISCM Festival in 1964, emboldening Imre Fabian to write, in the book Contemporary Music in Europe - published the following year - that "Kurtág is definitely going his own way, following the path of the Webern school without being epigonal," and to predict that "the musical world will certainly hear of him." A wider recognition was a long time coming: Kurtág spent most of the 1960s and 70s in Budapest, teaching piano and chamber music, and revising - endlessly - his small body of work. Between 1959 and 1973, for example, he published only eight works, amounting to a total of less than 90 minutes of (highly concentrated) music. Outside encouragement came from the the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, which commissioned both the Hommage ŕ András Mihaly (duly dedicated to the German town of Witten) and the Officium Breve (dedicated to Witten Festival organizer Wilfried Brennecke), as well as the Kafka-Fragmente (the latter written for, and premiered by, András Keller).The Hommage ŕ András Mihály (1977), subtitled "12 microludes for string quartet" takes as its starting point "a few notes" from the cello concerto of Mihály. One of the most forthright proponents of 20th century music in Hungary, Mihály had championed the works of Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg and Hindemith in the 1930s and 40s and, with an unbending commitment to modernism, conducted all of Kurtág's early work in Budapest. Indicating the regenerative nature of his own work as a whole, Kurtág has pointed out that the fifth microlude contains "the germ for the final adagio of my ...quasi una fantasia...", while the sixth is "an example of one of my reductive, straight-forward polyphonic, harmonic pieces."The Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky (1988-89) has been described by Paul Griffiths as "a voiceless requiem in fifteen movements ranging from the merest wisps to an arrangement of the chorale-canon from Webern's Second Cantana: the work is an ellipse around foci that are this Webern composition and a serenade for strings by Endre Szervánszky." There are also elements drawn from Kurtág's own Játékok and allusions to Beethoven and to Bach. Writer Hartmut Lück, for example, has pointed to references to the St. John Passion in the second movement, which honours the memory of recorder player Zsölt Baranyi. (Apropos Játékok, György and Marta Kurtág have already recorded this work for ECM New Series. Release is scheduled for 1997.)Even measured against the density of meanings that is the norm in Kurtág's work, the Szervánsky tribute is a compendious piece, its realization prompting these words from the composer: "I had learned something from the Officium breve: A structure of relationships, an apparently loose continuity of individual pieces, could equally well be composed as the music itself, only in a second, superimposed, editorial level." The observation led to the "composing" of fixed programmes of his music for the concert stage, but it casts an incidental light, too, on aspects of record production: for example, the decision to counterbalance the Hommage ŕ R.Sch. with works by its dedicatee, Robert Schumann, on Kurtág's first New Series disc was, in its way, a "compositional" decision. Or the framing of the First String Quartet and the 12 Microludes on the current recording by two "takes" of the "Ligatura – Message to Frances-Marie", wherein Kurtág "answers" Charles Ives's Unanswered Question. On that venerable (1906) piece of musical experimentation, with its floating curves and textures, a lone trumpet reiterated a question - "why'" - to a flock of mocking flutes.Kurtág's question-and-answer session was written in 1989 for cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, a pioneer in extended techniques, including the use of two bows for simultaneous playing over and under the strings. She premiered the work in Oslo in 1990. In the first revised version of the Ligatura – Message - there is a further version for two organs and upright piano - two cellos share responsibilities previously assigned to the idiosyncratic Uitti. Second cello is played here by frequent Kurtág and Keller associate Miklós Perényi, a professor at the Budapest Liszt Academy since 1980. Kurtág himself signs the Ligatura – Message with percussive celesta in the concluding measures.The newest work presented on Musik für Streichinstrumente is Aus der Ferne III, written in 1991 for Alfred Schlee in his 90th year; Kurtág has been saluting the publisher at five year intervals, Aus der Ferne I and II being written for, respectively, Schlee's 80th and 85th birthdays.In the CD booklet, Jürg Stenzl describes the work: "As if from a remote distance, piano and pianissimo strains are heard, transfiguring the act of remembering into sound itself, and when the two violins and the viola impose their dolce espressivo figures and stationary notes over the pulsating low C of the cello plucked 'like a kettledrum', they become more and more compressed and intense, until finally fading 'into the distance'."As is evident, this Musik für Streichinstrumente is bound up, like almost all of Kurtág's oeuvre, with memories, as he pays homage to friends alive and dead and to an enormously wide range of inspirational sources. In his 70th year, György Kurtág has himself been the subject of tributes, with major retrospectives of his work in London, Berlin and Budapest as well as important performances at the 75th Donaueschinger Musiktage and at the 50th Edinburgh Festival (where the world premiere of the complete version of his choral work Songs of Despair and Sorrow was given). This most secretive of composers, for decades reluctant to submit his music for public inspection, is finally being acknowledged as one of the most original voices of our era.In Autumn 1996 the Keller Quartet play Kurtág's music in North America, in the course of their tour of the United States and Canada; European concerts are planned for the new year.Further New Series recordings with György Kurtág and with the Keller Quartet are in preparation.