Recorded in Amsterdam’s Musikgebouw and Haarlem’s Philharmonie between March 2013 and July 2016, this 3-CD Set is a milestone in the documentation of Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s work, and also a labour of love. It brings together all of Kurtág’s works for ensemble and for ensemble and choir, and the insightful and precise performances bear witness to extensive preparation by the dedicated Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble.
In an interview in the CD booklet, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw speaks of “learning Kurtág’s oeuvre step by step, and performing these pieces repeatedly over a period of twenty years.” De Leeuw consulted with György and Márta Kurtág before and after each session: “There were moments when I was overwhelmed at first hearing”, says the famously-demanding Kurtág, “and we could embrace the result immediately. But sometimes we were critical. The fact that Reinbert always listened to our remarks and re-recorded fragments or even whole pieces makes this publication authentic.”
Perhaps no contemporary composer enjoys greater respect than György Kurtág – respect for a life of dedication, and for the music that has come out of that life. It is music hard-won, tested not only by the severest self-criticism but also by the difficult and sometimes oppressive circumstances under which Kurtág had to live in early years, and subsequently as a composer insisting on the value and the challenge of art in uncertain times.
His music has stimulated great performances, including those documented on ECM New Series – among them Kim Kashkashian’s recordings of the solo music for viola, and the Keller Quartet’s Musik für Streichinstrumente, the Kafka Fragmente performed by András Keller and Juliane Banse as well as Kurtág’s own interpretations of his Játékok (Games), played together with his wife Márta.
This new release takes a place with the finest for its intense, gripping recordings of his output involving a small orchestra of soloists. There are songs here, searing and delicate. Also on display is Kurtág’s powerful understanding of the chorus. The works heard in this edition are presented in chronological order of composition, beginning with the Four Capriccios (1959-1970, rev. 1993) and continuing with Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky (1975), Grabstein für Stephan (1978-79, rev. 1989), Messages of the late Miss R. Troussova (1976-80), … quasi una fantasia… (1987-88), Op. 27 No. 2 Double Concerto (1989-90), Samuel Beckett: What is the Word (1991), Songs of Despair and Sorrow (1980-1994), Songs to Poems by Anna Akhmatova (1997-2008), Colindă-Baladă (2010), and Brefs Messages (2011).
Again and again Kurtág’s striking originality is evident. As Reinbert de Leeuw remarks: “I had the privilege of working with great composers of our time, sometimes interpreting every single orchestral work of a composer, like I did with Messiaen. At one point you think you have a pretty good idea of what 20th century music is about. And then comes the music of György Kurtág. That was a real shock for me, completely transforming my perception of music. Kurtág is of the generation of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Maderna, Cage, Ligeti, and Kagel. The fact that he developed his own voice in relative seclusion and much later than his contemporaries may have contributed to my shock. I was completely overwhelmed by the simple means Kurtág needs to create his own musical universe. How is it possible that just playing the open strings of a guitar, as in the opening bars of Grabstein für Stephan, followed by the pianino taking over these chords, is breathtaking? I can’t think of another composer having had that impact on me.”
György Kurtág was born on 19 February 1926 at Lugos (Lugoj in Romanian) in the Bánát region of Romania. He has been a Hungarian citizen since 1948; since 2002 he holds Hungarian-French dual citizenship. Kurtág began his studies at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1946, where his professors included Pál Kadosa, Leó Weiner, Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas.
Kurtág has been the recipient of many awards and prizes. They include the Prize of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, the Grawemeyer Award, the Sonning Music Prize, and the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale for Lifetime Achievement. In February 2017 György Kurtág celebrated both his 91st birthday and his 70th wedding anniversary. To commemorate these events, he and his pianist wife Márta were presented with the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award at a ceremony in Budapest.