Gyorgy Kurtag Stele: BBC SO/ Andrew Davis
Friday 30 August 1996
Kurtg is known as a miniaturist, but these 14 minutes showed some striking ways of mixing new colours with a huge orchestra, particularly with the large percussion section and winds. With such extravagant resources, you'd expect Kurtg to come up with some novelties. On just one hearing, the opening minutes of the first of the three sections seemed by far the most distilled, but perhaps that reveals some kind of law to do with diminishing response to a certain kind of music. I wish I hadn't read the blow-by- blow programme note (though it's hard to know how else the hapless writer might have tackled it without snooping into Kurtg's private world). I must have missed a crucial turning: it was like relating scenery to an Ordnance Survey map. Stele means a memorial tablet, and there was no mistaking the funerary character of the final procession of chords, "like great hieroglyphs", said the writer, aptly conveying the impression of Kurtg's musical language as a mysterious code.
Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and Ives's Fourth Symphony represent opposites of pagan hedonism and rugged evangelical virtue. In the former, the BBC SO's principal flute, Lorna McGhee, brought some interesting tonal shadings to her solos. In the Ives, for all its exalted philosophical programme - the What? and Why? of life, as Ives put it - the things that stick in the memory are sensory thrills: the excitement of barely controlled chaos in the second movement, with its quarter-tones, which sound not merely out-of-tune but piquant; and its layers of different musics, as if overheard coming from different rooms; and the apparently random patterning of the starry firmament in the fourth movement.
The contrapuntal third movement, representing, Ives said, a reaction of life into formalism and ritualism, sounds like fake piety, and awkward. Ives had a solid musical grounding in tradition - this wasn't mere gaucherie. Like the piece he called The Unanswered Question, the Fourth Symphony leaves an open vista. Beethoven, as a classicist, deep down, could never have tolerated that.
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