György Kurtág (b. 1926) and György Ligeti (1923-2006) were friends, for more than sixty years. “For a long time, a lifetime, Ligeti led me onward,” said Kurtág. “I followed him – sometimes right behind him and other times years or even decades later. I call it my ‘Imitatio Christi’ syndrome. The first years of our friendship were marked not only by his intellectual leadership. I oriented my taste according to his example.”
Yet how different are their respective oeuvres: Ligeti vastly prolific, Kurtág parsimonious in his productions, strongly self-critical, determined to justify every note (“Every tone has to be deserved”). For parallel artistic allies one might have to look beyond music: to literature perhaps, to Joyce’s cascading river run of language and Beckett grimly squeezing drops of inspiration from a dry sponge. Kurtág and Ligeti had a similar aesthetic relationship: sharing a nationality – and a “mother tongue” in Bartók – their contrasting temperaments took them to different places. Ligeti’s frame of reference can be encyclopaedic, in the space of a single composition alluding to higher mathematics and folk dance and welcoming any resultant “strangeness”, Kurtág always more aphoristic, cryptic, terse, has built a halting language out of miniatures, works which seem to take on a new intensity when sequenced. His works can be quietly eruptive: Peter Eötvös once referred to Kurtág as “a very shy volcano”, a characterization that catches both the charm and force of his work.
Kim Kashkashian, one of the preeminent artists of ECM New series, has devoted herself to Kurtág’s oeuvre for viola for more than 20 years and, as Wolfgang Sandner notes in the booklet to this disc has developed a remarkable rapport for the relation between compositional fabric and sonic nuance when performing it. Already in the early 1990s Kashkashian was recording Kurtág’s works for ECM, including the solo cycle “Jelek” which the composer revised with and for her, and “Neun Stücke for Viola solo”, pieces subsequently integrated into the ongoing “Signs, Games and Messages”. She has also recorded Kurtág’s early Movement for Viola and Orchestra on a disc addressing modern Hungarian composition (Eötvös/Bartók/Kurtág) with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.
The present album, recorded at the Propstei St Gerold in May 2011, finds Kashkashian exploring and contrasting the solo viola works of Kurtág and Ligeti. Kashkashian and producer Manfred Eicher determined the dramaturgical sequence of the present version of “Signs, Games and Messages” which leads naturally toward the Ligeti Sonata. Sandner: “In Kashkashian’s scrupulous reading, the Kurtág pieces and the movements of Ligeti’s Viola Sonata seem like the work of a single visionary artist”.
György Ligeti appreciated the dark sounds of the viola, in his introduction to the Sonata he wrote, “The viola is seemingly just a big violin but tuned a fifth lower. In reality the two instruments are worlds apart. They both have three strings in common, the A, D and G string. The high E-string lends the violin a powerful luminosity and metallic penetrating tone which is missing in the viola. The violin leads, the viola remains in the shadow. In return the low C-string gives the viola a unique acerbity, compact, somewhat hoarse, with an aftertaste of wood, earth and tannic acid.”