To celebrate the 90th birthday of Hungarian composer György Kurtág, Budapest rolled out the red carpet for an eight-day retrospective, Kurtág 90. On Friday, the Concerto Budapest Orchestra and international soloists performed six of his orchestral works at the Franz Liszt Academy for his birthday.

György Kurtág at 90 © Judit Marjai
György Kurtág at 90
© Judit Marjai

This concert revealed to what extent Kurtág, as the last of a long line of esteemed 20th-century Hungarian composers, is recognized and revered. As a prelude, the Berlin Philharmonic’s maestro Sir Simon Rattle appeared on a giant video screen, sending his felicitations: “You made us listen differently,” was Rattle’s closing sentence. The music that followed demonstrated Rattle’s sentiment.

Messages for Orchestra, Op.34, one of Kurtág’s few large-scale works, was written for an orchestra with an unusually high number of large percussion instruments, plus two pianos, two harps, organ, celesta and synthesizer modules – so most of the strings and winds played from the balconies. The Budapest Concerto Orchestra performed under the baton of András Keller, whose attention to both the general architecture and the minutiae was extraordinary. The score revealed a rich, fascinating orchestration that glowed with intimacy and affect, despite such grand forces onstage.

A solo double-bass offered the first simple theme with an especially intense vibrato which was followed by pianissimo tones from the Saint Ephraim Male Choir. We were soon plunged into waves of alternating shadows and brightness delivered by exceptionally skilled writing for woodwinds. In this piece we hear how Kurtág can make a melody out of anything. The work radiated an unearthly quality, so as to suggest the titular ‘messages’ were coming from an alternate universe. The last sound was only a whisper from the choir.

Later in the programme, New Messages, Op.34a offered a companion suite of messages to revisit the themes with fewer musicians. He particularly exploited the double-bass section’s capacity for dramatic menace through growl-like phrases and exaggerated vibratos. Exotic textures from delicately shimmering harmonics to brass blasts kept the tension levels constantly surprising.

Double Concerto for Piano and Cello is possibly one of the most unusual pieces written for cello. Requiring two separate cellos, the soloist’s role is sprinkled with eccentric technical aspects: microtones and exaggerated vibrato, re-tuning while playing, and runs the gamut between playing celestial obbligatos or pungently nasty snarls. Cellist Louise Hopkins made the most of all the dramatic gestures while maintaining a masterful and energetic musical overview, even while switching cellos mid-sentence.

Pianist Tamara Stefanovich had less arduous tasks, like pecking out single staccato tones or limpidly intoning perfect fifths. Those, and more fluid and/or electrified phrases, were the moments that were less obscured by the rich orchestration and the cello’s activities. Nevertheless, the pianism involved was of a heightened and specific nature, albeit more teamwork than scene-stealing pyrotechnics. Stefanovich was a passionate messenger for all of it.

This concerto is a piece that flings so many disparate sounds to our ears that it coaxes us to create the relationship between one moment and the next, and the next. And just when we needed it, the more linear final movement began with a simple open fifth in the piano and continued in an intimate, luminescent atmosphere which trailed off into the ether.

...quasi una fantasia...Op.27 no. 1 begins with one of Kurtág’s favorite devices: a scale. Scored for piano (Pierre-Laurent Aimard), percussion, harp, cimbalom and harmonica, it’s already a fascinating sonic mix. That mix took us through a time-warp of emotion from innocent blissed-out reverie to demonic banging of war drums. The piano’s contribution was more defined than that of the Double Concerto, and more often than not felt like pointillistic commentary. Aimard’s obvious affinity for this repertoire burned brightly.

Zwiegespräch (Dialogue) for synthesizer and orchestra, is an updated, fleshed-out version of a father-son collaboration in 1999, a score of the same name for a chamber group. By bringing 21st-century electronic sound techniques into the mix (as well as the input of conductor-composer Olivier Cuendet) for this version, György Kurtág Jr. brewed an effervescent palette of conversational elements that concluded with a haunting decrescendo. That provided the perfect segue to the Hungarian première of Kurtág Sr.’s Petite musique solennelle composed for the late Pierre Boulez’ 90th birthday. It was a sweet and timely remembrance from one nonagenarian to another.

After this concert, as well as others within Kurtág 90, my ears were indeed tuned differently. As János Bali, the composer’s editor, said during that week, “He examines the connection between two sounds. [Through him] we learn the art of listening.”

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