KURTÁG AND WORDS
Kurtág’s Op. 7 presents extreme difficulties to both the soprano singer and the pianist; this may explain why it is heard so rarely. The last time Budapest audiences had a chance to hear it was 19 December 2017, at the closing concert of the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, after a gap of more than twenty years. The composer was unable to be present at this performance due to health reasons, but he felt it necessary for the audience to hear him reading the text before the work was performed.
The way the 91-year-old Kurtág reads, interprets, and presents the antiquated lines of Bornemisza, a sixteenth-century Hungarian Protestant preacher, is itself a moment of exceptional interpretation, similar to the recording in which Bartók reads the text of the Cantata profana. On this CD too, Kurtág’s words prime the listener for the experience of the work.
This reading is far more eloquent than any performance indication. The masterly rhetoric even gives the tempo for the reading. Little would we think that we are listening to an elderly man. The basic tone is given by a vigorous tempo appropriate to the ardour of seventeenth-century monody. The slackening rhythm of the reading highlights certain important expressions and expressive words, and puts them in the spotlight. Like his former model Heinrich Schütz, Kurtág’s creative imagination takes wing at these words. And the reading gives an advance taster of the characters generated by the words, characters which acquire special significance in the musical setting. After this, no singer of the work can avoid drawing inspiration from Kurtág’s reading of the text.
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: THE SAYINGS OF PÉTER BORNEMISZA, OP.7.
Between January 1963 and August 1968, over more than five years, Kurtág composed the first major work of his career, which György Kroó dubbed in 1974 “the greatest work in Hungarian music since the Second World War”.
For sure, there were no other compositions like Kurtág’s opus 7, which erects a monumental memory to one of the key figures of the Hungarian Reformation. Péter Bornemisza (1535—1584), teacher of the poet Bálint Balassi, excelled not only in spreading Lutheran teachings in Hungary in the face of persecution; he was also one of the creators of a literary language in sixteeenth-century Hungary.
Péter Bornemisza’s prose Hungarian translation of Sophocles’s Electra is the first Hungarian language drama of European rank. Initially, Kurtág wanted to write an opera, a Hungarian Electra, but the enormity of the task proved too great for him. However, the Sándor Eckhardt and István Nemeskürty editions of Bornemisza gave him the preachings of the reformer, and from these he compiled his own text for the work. The 24 short movements are divided into four parts: Confession – Sin – Death – Spring, in which the first scholars to analyse the composition discerned the musical structure of overture – scherzo – slow movement – finale.
Even to list the many various ways Kurtág references the history of European music in Bornemisza would be challenging. This concerto for a solo singer and a keyboard instrument might bring to mind the passions of Schütz’s sacred concerti; even Monteverdi’s highly charged stile concitato is a suitable comparison. The fiendishly difficult piano part recalls Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata (Kurtág planned to perform the two works in one concert). The splendid fugues of the piano part look back to Bachian models. The Bornemisza concerto is none other than the most virtuosic, most individual Hungarian application of dodecaphonic composition, and in this respect Kurtág’s master was, first and foremost, Webern. (Though the work’s first singer was Erika Sziklay, whom he heard give wonderful performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire.) The rhythm-related features of the piano part seem reminiscent of Stockhausen’s piano music. Kurtág himself mentions that the first movement of Death was directly influenced by Penderecki’s Hiroshima. In relating the sixteenth-century preacher’s grave words to the present, Kurtág may have been mindful of Kodály’s Psalmus hungaricus from forty years previously. Kodály’s influence can also be seen in the tendency to word painting in the music. The presence of Bartók, typically, is felt in the fourth section of the work, in the euphony of rebirth. An imposing muster, and not without basis, and yet — dare I say it — we have not yet said anything about Kurtág’s Bornemisza.
Attempts to interpret the work encompass a broad span indeed. Some see in it a process moving from the temptation of dodecaphony to the redemption of diatonic music: a battle for beauty suffered for and won anew. Others see the composition as the embodiment of pangs of conscience and disgust arising from compromise with the communist Kádár regime.
No less interesting is it to view Bornemisza from the perspective of Kurtág’s own career as a musician, and we can recognize in it the monumental upbeat to the oeuvre of the greatest contemporary Hungarian composer, the struggle undertaken for the most accurate expression of words in music, the genesis of a composerly thinking betrothed to the human voice, the primal source for thousands of Kurtág’s main ideas. And of course we can recognize in this composition the courage to confront our own selves, with our devils and temptations, and the peace and hope won as a reward for this courage.
THE STORY OF THE GENESIS OF THE PERFORMANCE
Preparations for the Budapest commemoration concert for the Reformation 500, given on 19 December 2017 in the Music Academy, began two years earlier. Finding the singer for Bornemisza proved to be the most difficult task. A good few excellent singers rejected the piece, notorious for its murderously difficult vocal part, and others were vetoed by the composer. Tony Arnold, who had already proved her affinity for the composer with her performances of Kurtág’s Op. 17, Messages of the Late R. V. Troussova, took on the challenge. Grappling with the Hungarian-language proved to be the easiest thing for her. The real challenge was mastering the astonishingly difficult, dodecaphonic voice part, with its extremes of register, and dramatic outbursts, all at the white heat of expression that Kurtág demanded. Most of the rehearsals took place in Budapest, with Kurtág. The composer’s wife Márta monitored the heroic undertakings throughout, constantly reproaching Kurtág for the devilishly difficult things he had set down on paper. At one dramatic moment Tony broke down in tears. “Here I am, fifty years old, I thought I knew all there was to know about singing, and it turns out I know nothing.” Then the Kurtág couple embraced her. This may well have been the turning point in the rehearsal process. Gábor Csalog had already played the equally “unlearnable” piano part several times. During rehearsals he stood his ground as a pianist, assistant, mediator, and if necessary, psychologist. Whoever has studied with Kurtág has some idea of his demands for uncompromising music-making – for the musicians to give their entire being. To paraphrase the text of a Hungarian folksong: “if you want to be [Kurtág’s] piper, you have to go through hell.” Perhaps it is no exaggeration if, in the case of the sayings of Péter Bornemisza, this “hell” is the most frightening and hopeless of places. Eventually though, the story of this passionate work of several years was crowned with resurrection: the work was born into new life, in a “valid” performance.
Translated by Richard Robinson
Soprano Tony Arnold
is a luminary in the world of chamber music and art song. Today’s classical composers are inspired by her inherently beautiful voice, consummate musicianship, and embracing spirit” (Huffington Post). Hailed by the New York Times as “a bold, powerful interpreter,” she is internationally acclaimed as a leading proponent of contemporary music in concert and recording, having premiered hundreds of works by established and emerging composers. She has a unique blend of vocal virtuosity and communicative warmth, combined with wide-ranging skills in education and leadership. Tony Arnold has collaborated with the most cutting-edge composers and instrumentalists on the world stage. With more than thirty discs to her credit, Tony Arnold has recorded a broad segment of the modern vocal repertory with esteemed chamber music colleagues. Her recording of George Crumb’s iconic Ancient Voices of Children
(Bridge) was nominated for a 2006 Grammy Award. Other notable releases include György Kurtág’s monumental Kafka Fragments
(Bridge); Jason Eckardt’s uncompromising Undersong
(Mode) and Tongues
(Tzadik); Olivier Messiaen’s mystical Harawi
(New Focus); and the complete Webern project under the direction of Robert Craft (Naxos). Her teaching work is also significant: for over a decade she served on the faculty of the University at Buffalo, where she founded the extended techniques vocal ensemble, BABEL. She has performed, lectured and given master classes as a guest in over 50 universities worldwide. She currently teaches at the Peabody Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center.www.screecher.com
Pianist Gábor Csalog (1960) is one of the most authentic performers of contemporary Hungarian music. At the age of eleven he was admitted to the exceptional talents class at the Academy of Music in Budapest, where his teachers included Zoltán Kocsis, András Schiff, and György Kurtág. He has a close working relationship with Kurtág, and has participated in several premieres of Kurtág’s works, and for many years he has been an assistant at the composer’s chamber music courses. From 2000 Gábor Csalog was the exclusive performer of Ligeti’s piano works, and their collaboration lasted until the composer’s death in 2006. Since 2001 Gábor Csalog has been Associate Professor of Chamber Music at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Hungarian concert-goers are familiar with his unusual programming, where he finds susprising links between the classics and new music – most recently in the Gábor Csalog Sundays series organized in Budapest Music Center. He has given concerts in almost every country in Europe and in the USA, in events such as the Kuhmo Festival and the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. He has played alongside musicians such as András Keller, András Kemenes, Heinz Holliger, Pinchas Steinberg, Pekka Kuusisto, and Nicolas Altstaedt. His discography includes a selection of works by Schubert (2002: Schubert Piano Works, BMC CD 084), a recording of the Transcendental Etudes by Liszt and Ligeti (2004: Transcendental Etudes – Liszt and Ligeti, BMC Records, BMC CD 095), and a recording of pieces from György Kurtág’s Játékok (Games), which was released as a double CD on the BMC Records label in 2008 (BMC CD 139). His latest album was released in 2016 and includes Beethoven sonatas and concert recordings of works by András Szőllősy and Gyula Csapó (BMC CD 224). Several times he has been awarded the Artisjus Prize, and in 2003 he received the Liszt Prize by the Hungarian state.