Music Review: György and Márta Kurtág Premiere 'Hommage à Bartók' at Library of Congress

György and Márta Kurtág, above in 2008, premiered on Saturday a work commissioned by the library.
György and Márta Kurtág, above in 2008, premiered on Saturday a work commissioned by the library. (By István Huszti)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

You don't often see an upright piano on a concert stage. And you don't often see an upright piano that looks like the one that was onstage at the Library of Congress on Saturday night: gleaming and jet-black, its edges curved like an art deco radio receiver, two halves of its top raised like rabbit ears to get reception from some distant sender. It was there to channel the music of the almost-83-year-old composer György Kurtág, who with his wife, Márta, came to the United States for the first time ever this month to perform his works in New York and Washington, and to present here the world premiere of a work commissioned by the library, "Hommage à Bartók."

Kurtág has for most of his life been better known in Europe than in the States, though the Peter Sellars/Dawn Upshaw staging of his "Kafka Fragments" and his 1994 orchestral piece "Stele" have helped place him on the local map. His reputation, to those who know of him at all, is of a lapidary modernist titan, toiling painstakingly over concentrated scraps of music. He would hardly seem to be a warm or fuzzy figure for audiences.

But whatever Saturday's concert was, it wasn't pretentious. Indeed, it was almost an anti-concert: Subverting expectations about Great Art, it presented itself, instead, as defiantly homemade. The two Kurtágs took the stage looking frankly adorable -- Márta beamed almost apologetically while her husband of six decades reached for her hand -- and then sat side by side on a piano bench, with their backs to the audience, and together and separately offered a program comprising mainly excerpts from "Játékok" ("Games"), a kind of scrapbook of small-scale piano pieces, some so simple they can be performed by a child. (Kurtág has been writing for the past 30-plus years.)

The music they made seemed to be coming from another world. The sound of the instrument was woofy and muffled, kept in check by a steady use of the damper pedal (which Kurtág keeps permanently down); and the two players interacted with the kind of routine intimacy that means finishing each other's sentences, so that in Márta's solo performance of "Merran's Dream," her husband sounded the final, complex bass chord.

The music was aphoristic, sometimes trivial, sometimes profound, highly condensed, often raw and half-formed: a diary of musical thoughts rather than a collection of polished works. Now lyrical, now jarring, built of fragments and wisps of sound applied with great care, it is a record filled with personal references and tributes to past friends, including "In Memoriam András Mihály," one of the composer's seminal works.

Kurtág is not a fluent composer, or even an especially articulate one. He has wrestled with music his whole career. A turning point in his early life was working with an art psychologist who recommended that he focus on setting himself simple, small, basic assignments, and his work has reflected this influence ever since.

Bigger pieces tend to be aggregates of smaller ones: This is true of "Kafka Fragments," of his "6 Moments Musicaux" for string quartet, which the Keller Quartet played in the second half of Saturday's program, and of the "Hommage à Bartók" which, at its unveiling, felt like an extension of the "Játékok" pieces that had preceded it. The composer performed the astringent first movement, "Adieu, Haydée I & II," alone; the second movement was a four-hand Bach transcription or tracing played by him and his wife; and Márta alone played the final, more lyrical movement, "Mártának," which I believe translates as "To Márta." It was a beautifully personal tribute to a composer whom Kurtág has referred to in an interview as his "mother tongue."

The evening was conceived as a joint tribute to Kurtág and Bartók, as well as the launch of the Washington segment of the multi-pronged "Extremely Hungary" festival, based mainly in New York but partly here as well, mounted by the Hungarian Cultural Center of New York. Beyond the opening piece, a selection from "Mikrokosmos" played by both Kurtágs, the other Bartók selection on the program was the Fifth String Quartet, which shared with the Kurtág "6 Moments" a certain sense of place and color. The Keller Quartet produced a raspy, warm, rather acerbic sound and offered a more conventional form of musical intensity than that offered by the Kurtágs.

It is the nature of a homage to look at the past. With its old-fashioned piano sound, its collage of pieces offered in tribute, and the Old World grandparent personae of the guests of honor, this evening felt like a Central European scrapbook. It evoked a past when a visit to the Library of Congress by a renowned composer (such as Bartók's 1940 performance with Joseph Szigeti) created a sound that could be heard beyond the boundaries of the music world -- which continues to guard such memories, like pressed flowers.

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