György Kurtág: Signs, Games and Messages - Friedrich Hölderlin / Samuel Beckett

Kurt Widmer, Orlando Trio, Mircea Ardeleanu

The first new album by Kurtág in six years is a major event. Kurtág was always a master of the miniature – no tone or texture, no grain of sound is wasted – but now his work is more concentrated than ever. The work on “Signs, Games and Messages” represents a pinnacle of Kurtág’s art of achieving the ultimate in expression by the most minimal of means. The album is comprised of settings of Hölderlin (and Paul Celan) in the “Hölderlin-Gesänge”, sung by Kurt Widmer, and of Beckett (and Sébastien Chamfort) in “ … pas à pas – nulle part …”, sung by Widmer with string trio and percussion. The two song cycles are linked by the work-in-progress that gives the album its title: “Signs, Games and Messages” for strings. The three cycles recorded here – and to which the distinguished interpreters gave years of intense collaboration – comprise between them a total of 59 tracks, only one of which goes beyond three minutes in duration. More than any composer before him, Kurtág has mastered the art of the expressive musical aphorism – or, as he self-deprecatingly puts it, “making music out of almost nothing.” But as England’s The Guardian said, “A whole world of expression and suggestion can be packed into these exquisite, crystalline forms.”

Featured Artists Recorded

February-March 2002, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich

Original Release Date

26.05.2003

  • Hölderlin-Gesänge op. 35a
    (Friedrich Hölderlin, György Kurtág)
  • 1An... - hommage à D.E. Sattler02:49
  • 2Im Walde - für Georg Kröll01:23
  • 3Gestalt und Geist col trombone e tuba - hommage à Alexander Polzin01:26
  • 4An Zimmern - für Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus01:54
  • 5Der Spaziergang - für Heinz Holliger02:42
  • 6Paul Celan: Tübingen, Jänner - Robert klein in Erinnerung01:35
  • Signs, Games & Messages
  • 7Virág az ember, Mijakónak
    (György Kurtág)
    01:31
  • 8Im Volkston (Népdalféle) - Horváth Juditnak
    (György Kurtág)
    00:55
  • 9Hommage à J.S.B.
    (György Kurtág)
    01:16
  • 10Zank - Kromatisch
    (György Kurtág)
    01:08
  • 11The Carenta Jig
    (György Kurtág)
    00:49
  • 12Ligatura Y
    (György Kurtág)
    02:50
  • 13Jelek (Signs) I - Székács Jánosnak
    (György Kurtág)
    00:50
  • 14Jelek (Signs) II - Székács Jánosnak
    (György Kurtág)
    00:36
  • 15Klagendes Lied (Panaszos nóta)
    (György Kurtág)
    02:12
  • 16Jelek (Signs) III
    (György Kurtág)
    00:47
  • 17Eine Blume für Dénes Zsigmondy - in memoriam Anneliese Nissen-Zsigmondy
    (György Kurtág)
    03:06
  • 18In memoriam Tamás Blum
    (György Kurtág)
    02:13
  • 19Perpetuum mobile A - Vadas Ágnesnek
    (György Kurtág)
    00:50
  • 20Perpetuum mobile B
    (György Kurtág)
    01:22
  • 21Hommage à John Cage
    (György Kurtág)
    01:52
  • 22Schatten - Perényi Miklósnak
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:45
  • 23Jelek (Signs) I - Perènyi Miklósnak
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:59
  • 24János Pilinszky: Gérard de Nerval - Kocsis Zoltának
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:28
  • 25Virág az ember, Mijakónak
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:30
  • ...pas à pas - nulle part... op. 36
  • 26Introduzione
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:24
  • 27...pas à pas - nulle part...
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:56
  • 28le nain - hommage à Roland Moser
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:07
  • 29octave - message à Pierre Boulez
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:34
  • 30...le tout petit macabre-Ligetinek ...imagine...
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:03
  • 31octave (double) - à Isabelle Kurtág
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:44
  • 32écoute-les
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:40
  • 33berceuse - hommage à Heinz Holliger
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:57
  • 34Intermezzo I
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:38
  • 35...d'où la voix...
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:34
  • 36elles viennent... - hommage à Gösta Neuwirth
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:06
  • 37rêve - hommage à Henri Pousseur
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:40
  • 38apparition - à Jehuda Elkana
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:31
  • 39fous... - à Annamarie Brunner
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:31
  • 40fin fond de néant... - hommage à Eric Satie
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:21
  • 41en face le pire...
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:17
  • 42inventaire - hommage à Jan van Vlijmen
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:46
  • 43Intermezzo II
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:02
  • 44Dieppe - hommage à Francois Sulyok
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:35
  • 45La calma
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:29
  • 46Intermezzo III
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:33
  • 47mouvement
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:40
  • 48de pied ferme
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:05
  • 49...levons l'ancre...
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:41
  • 50du coeur de l'homme.../how hollow heart
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:36
  • 51sleep...
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:51
  • 52oblivion, sweet oblivion - hommage à Christian Wolff
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:56
  • 53"Lasciate ogni speranza"
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:58
  • 54a shocking case - ...a little song for Liz Baker
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:53
  • 55Valse - hommage à Helmut Lachenmann
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:31
  • 56Intermezzo IV - Pizzicato keringö - hommage à Ránki György
    (Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    01:43
  • 57Méditation
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:40
  • 58...une découverte bouleversante
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    00:38
  • 59asking for salve and solace - hommage à Merran Joy Poplar
    (Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort, Samuel Beckett, György Kurtág)
    02:09
Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Jahrespreis
Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Bestenliste 3/2003
Le Monde de la Musique, Choc du mois
Neue Musikzeitung, nmz-tipp ‘03
Scherzo, Los discos excepcionales
 
Now in his late seventies, the Hungarian composer György Kurtág is one of the most interesting and esteemed composers alive… Six years since his much-admired Játékok, ECM releases three of Kurtág’s most concentrated works, the title track a deft, often witty string piece deploying the individual and collective skills of the Orlando Trio in a series of striking homages to Kurtág’s friends and contemporaries. They’re joined by the baritone Kurt Widmer for "Hölderlin Gesänge" and a haunting song cycle to Beckett poems. Between them, the three works constitute 59 tracks, only one of them more than three minutes long – minimalism par excellence.
Anthony Holden, The Observer
 
You listen enthralled to the 19 cameos so far composed of Kurtág’s "Signs, Games and Massages" for strings, to the opening trio, mysterious and glowing, like a beam of light in cupped hands. The "Hölderlin-Gesänge" are exquisite examples of how a solo voice can maximise expressive potential, the baritone Kurt Widmer again obliging to extraordinarily powerful effect. And there are the 34 gnomic movements of "Pas à Pas – Nulle Part" to poems by Beckett and maxims by Chamfort, where Widmer collaborates with a string trio and percussionist. After Webern and Bartók, no one has mastered the prismatic miniature as comprehensively as Kurtág, and this new CD is a supreme example of his art.
Rob Cowan, The Independent
 
Il n’y a pas eu, depuis Purcell, Monteverdi, Schubert, Schumann et Wolf, de compositeur plus attentif au texte que György Kurtág. Plus accueillant, plus sensible. Les pièces chantées de ce compositeur hors du commun sont toutes d’une fantastique précision dans la déclamation poétique: non qu’il s’agisse seulement d’identification, de ferveur, mais plutôt d’artisanat furieux, de fanatisme expressif. Les pièces pour trio à cordes brillent, aux côtés de ces miniatures somptueuses d’intelligence et d’invention, comme des bijoux minuscules, raffinés et délicats. Pas une note de trop, pas une faiblesse, pas une facilité. Un disque génial de bout en bout.
Le Nouvel Observateur
 
Kein anderer Komponist seit Webern hat die Form der Miniatur so konsequent gepflegt wie György Kurtág. Seine Werke sind von einer unübertroffenen Prägnanz und Konzentration. Oft sind es nur wenige Klänge oder Töne, aus denen ein Stück besteht. Kurtág reduziert die Musik auf das Wesentliche, opulente Klangschwelgerei ist seine Sache nicht. … Die Gedichte Becketts umfassen meist nur wenige Worte. Es sind sprachliche Destillate, die einen Gedanken, eine Situation, einen Moment umreißen. Kurtág verleiht diesen Miniaturen mit sparsamen Klängen eine zusätzliche Dimension, er bringt die Essenz musikalisch auf den Punkt. Kurt Widmer ist der ideale Interpret für diese Gesänge. Sein enormes Ausdrucksspektrum, vom Hauchen bis zum Schreien, ermöglicht den von Kurtág angestrebten Nuancenreichtum. … In "Signs, Games and Messages", einem "work in progress" für verschiedene Besetzungen vom Solo bis zum Trio, zeigt Kurtág, wie aus einer einzigen Phrase ein ganzer musikalischer Kosmos entwickelt werden kann.
Martin Demmler, Fono Forum
 
As always with Kurtág the patchwork of each composition builds into infinitely more than the sum of its parts. The unaccompanied settings for baritone in "Hölderlin-Gesänge" make a seamless arch of incantatory, almost plainchant-like utterances that is broken only in the third song, when a trombone and tuba provide a fiercely baleful backdrop to the voice; it is unadorned, and wrenchingly powerful. The Beckett cycle is far more intricate. … Setting poems from Mirlitonnades, the collection in French that Beckett published in 1978, as well as a selection of the aphorism by the 18th-century French revolutionary Sébastien Chamade that the dramatist translated into English around the same time, "Pas à Pas – Nulle Part" is effectively an extended nocturne, a meditation on darkness and death that propels itself on a mixture of rage and resignation towards extinction. … An integral part of Kurtág’s genius is his ability to give the most unprepossessing musical gesture an immense expressive weight, and the occasional climaxes in "Pas à Pas – Nulle Part" have a quite terrifying power. It is one of Kurtág’s greatest achievements."Signs, Games and Messages" is effectively the string counterpart to "Játékok", the collection of piano duets that Kurtág has been assembling steadily now for more than 30 years. It is a mixture of solos, duets and trios, as well as one string sextet, and each piece squeezes the last drop of expressiveness from every phrase, so that a simple scale or arpeggio can acquire immense significance. Such concentration demands equal commitment from Kurtág’s interpreters – and all of them here, especially the baritone Kurt Widmer in the two song cycles, are beyond praise. This is a quite exceptional disc.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
 
Auch der späte György Kurtág erscheint als der lyrische Miniaturist der zeitgenössischen Musik, als auch im Alter radikalster Poet einer hermetisch-expressiven Klangkürzelsprache. Neunzehn kleine und kleinste Zeichen, Spiele und Botschaften für verschiedene Streicher, 1989 als work in progress begonnen, sind eingefasst in eine Sprache der Verdichtung, die selbst die reduktionistischen Bedürfnisse eines Anton Webern hinter sich lässt. Was Schönberg einst über Weberns Musik sagte, scheint heute auf den 1926 geborenen Ungarn zuzutreffen: Es sei ihm gegeben, mit einem einzigen Seufzer einen Roman auszudrücken. … Zwei Gesangszyklen rahmen den Instrumentalzyklus: die "Hölderlin-Gesänge" für Bariton solo op. 35a und, nach Samuel Beckett, die Sammlung "…pas à pas – nulle part…" für Bariton solo, Streichtrio, Schlagzeug op. 36. Dazwischen "Signs, Games and Messages", abwechselnd für Geige, Bratsche und Cello solo beziehungsweise Streichtrio (vom Orlando Trio in subtiler Klanglichkeit realisiert). …Die menschliche Stimme in den Hölderlin- und Beckett-Gesängen ist es, die das Ringen um Klang und Ausdruck, Wort und Bedeutung semantisch konkret aufscheinen lässt. Die Hölderlin-Texte stammen aus der Wende zum Spätwerk oder aus der Zeit nach dem Zusammenbruch des Dichters… Bewundernswert ist, wie der Bariton Kurt Widmer unbegleitet, allein mit seiner vokalen Färbung und Ausdrucksnuancierung, die Traumata von Kurtágs unerhörter Hölderlin-Verdichtung aussingt. … Die späten lakonischen Tagebuch-Lyrismen Samuel Becketts werden aufs Eindringlichste abwechselnd von Streichern und Schlagzeug grundiert oder aufgerissen, den Beckettschen Leere- und Verzweiflungsfuror räumlich gleichsam ausweitend.
Wolfgang Schreiber, Süddeutsche Zeitung
 
 
 

Years have passed since György Kurtág’s last ECM recording, which incorporated his “Jatékok (Games)” and “Bach Transcriptions”, made with Kurtág and wife Márta playing piano together.

The birth of this newest album has been an arduous one, with the composer intensely and meticulously involved at every step of the way. And if “Games” are at the centre of this recording, too, they are often life-and-death games – echoing the endgame humours of Samuel Beckett’s universe and the anguish of Hölderlin – in a programme in which two song cycles are bridged by the “Signs, Games and Messages” for strings. (As England’s The Independent has observed, “György Kurtág never writes a note lacking musical intent, and never writes a note with which he has not lived and suffered.”) “Kurtág’s described all three cycles as “Works In Progress” and their formal boundaries are particularly fluid, even within the context of an oeuvre in which labyrinths of connecting threads (musical, literary, philosophical, epistolary) have become the norm.

Kurtág has consistently revised these works, reordered the movements, added new movements, set others aside, both for concert performances and in the realization of this album. Although “Signs, Games and Messages” includes among its numerous dedicatees an “Hommage à John Cage”, the tight control that Kurtág exerts over every grain of sound, every gesture, sigh and silence, makes his work the converse of “indeterminate”. And yet the way the pieces move, as chains of interlinked miniatures (only one of the 59 tracks here has a duration of more than three minutes), conveys a sense of living tissue as well as an “improvisational” freshness. “A whole world of expression and suggestion” is indeed “packed into these exquisite, crystalline forms” (The Guardian).

The album begins with six sections from the “Hölderlin-Gesänge” primarily for solo baritone, whose solitude is broken in one section (“Gestalt und Geist”) by the arrival – in this version – of trombone and tuba. As Thomas Bösche notes in the CD booklet: “Various attempts have been made to describe Kurtág’s handling of literary texts, for there is a secret here that is difficult to decode. In his settings, Kurtág penetrates deep into the often hermetic texts and arrives at a clarity and simplicity born of that depth. Kurtág’s world – as Walter Benjamin said of Franz Kafka – is the theatre of life. The poetic utterance is transformed into musical gestures and positioned on an imaginary stage. With hubris – ruinous human arrogance – as a central motif in Hölderlin’s late work, and equally in Kurtág’s settings, the fortissimo outburst of “Verwegner! möchtest von Angesicht zu Angesicht/ Die Seele sehn” [“Reckless! wanting to see the soul/ Face to face”] in “Gestalt und Geist” becomes the cycle’s centre of gravity.” Concluding the “Hölderlin-Gesänge” is a setting of Paul Celan’s famous “Tübingen, Janner” which the poet wrote after visiting the town where Hölderlin spent the final years of his life.

“…pas à pas – nulle part” is a set of 22 Samuel Beckett poems plus Beckett translations of the maxims of Sebastien Chamfort (1712-1794), a pioneering misanthropic aphorist whose caustic wit was predestined to strike a chord with the expatriate Irishman. As for Beckett and Kurtág, the Hungarian composer fell under the dramatist’s spell in 1957 when a performance of “Endgame” in Paris seemed to address his own existential despair. Of course these artists share both bleakness and humanity as well an acute sense of the futility and the necessity of artistic utterance in troubled times. The Kurtág settings are of poems Beckett wrote in French and published in 1978 under the title "Mirlintonnades". Jotted down originally on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, beer mats and whiskey bottle labels, the function of this “French doggerel” – to quote Beckett – was to keep despondency at bay in everyday life.

Thomas Bösche: “On the occasion of György Kurtág’s seventieth birthday, Hungarian author György Dalos was more than justified in asking: how can a composer who has concentrated exclusively on the essentials throughout his career possibly arrive at a late style marked by greater concentration and attention to the essentials. That even more intense concentration and radicalisation of what has always been inherent to Kurtág’s work is possible becomes eminently clear in the composer’s Hölderlin and Beckett settings. If ever justice has been done to Arnold Schoenberg’s dictum that music should not be decorative, but truthful, then it is here, where differentiation and intimacy are coupled with outward austerity.”

Of “Signs, Games and Messages” itself, music historian and former Kurtág pupil Rachel Beckles Willson has written: “One can hardly call this work a ‘string trio’: it is more like a conversation between three players, a conversation which sometimes attains synthesis and is sometimes dysfunctional or abstruse. The movements are short. They were often composed in one sweep on a single afternoon, in response to news, a mood or a thought. In their resultant abundance they can have been compared to diary entries.”