music Gyorgy Kurtag Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
Although his music is often anything but easy to listen to, Gyorgy Kurtag, paradoxically, represents what you might call the human face of the avant-garde. This is mainly because, however strange, elusive and downright bleak his work is, it always involves the listener emotionally in some way, as well as intellectually. This week in Edinburgh we had the chance to experience the curious charm of the composer at first hand, when he and his wife Marta themselves performed at the Usher Hall on Saturday in an evening devoted to his work.

Sitting together at the piano in the darkened auditorium, this by now elderly pair (Kurtag himself turned 70 in February) exuded a kind of modesty, yet great concentration, in a performance of selected items from Kurtag's Jatekok - a collection of pieces for young pianists, modelled upon those of the composer's great mentor, Bartok, and his Mikrokosmos. Many of these pieces were very short, and tended towards the humorous, with titles like "Knots", "Thistle" and "Tumble-bunny". (My favourite was "Beating-Fighting", in which the two pianists became involved in a struggle to play one particular key simultaneously.) There were more serious moments, too, as in the strongly Bartok-influenced "Furious Chorale", and "Bells-Homage to Stravinsky", with its haunting concluding chimes, while the selection also included a touching arrangement of a Bach Sonatina (from Cantata No 106).

On a different scale altogether was the performance of Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op 18, given by the Edinburgh Festival Singers and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, under David Jones. Here was the world premiere of the complete version of this extraordinary piece, which involves, as well as double choir, four accordions, two harmoniums, brass, piano, harps and a vast array of percussion played by six percussionists. Something of Kurtag's individual approach to composition is evident in the fact that most of these performers hardly play at all in the course of the piece - the percussionists only in the very last, very short, section.

The piece sets six poems of increasing degrees of despair by Russian poets, itself rather a remarkable thing for a Hungarian writing in the 1980s. The choral writing is dense, and of an almost incredible difficulty - the Festival Singers acquitted themselves well here. The overall effect was of a near-unbearable bleakness, shot through with the occasional, briefest, ray of hope, as when a major triad emerged out of a chromatic cloud, to hang shining for a moment.

Finally, What Is the Word? - a setting of a Samuel Beckett text - was performed by Kurtag, at an upright piano, and Ildiko Monyok, the singer/actress for whom it was written. Again, what might have been an intimidatingly abstract piece was given an extra human dimension by the fact that the work was written to help Monyok learn to speak again after a serious car accident. In the circumstances, the moans, shrieks and mumblings took on a significance almost too painful to contemplate.

The impact of this evening of Kurtag's music is difficult to sum up - but that there is a real integrity and vision at work here is not to be doubted.

n Kurtag at the Proms: 'Stele' tonight 7.30pm, 'Samuel Beckett: What Is the Word?' Friday 10pm, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (booking: 0171- 589 8212) both broadcast live on BBC Radio 3