CBSO/ORAMO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

Gyorgy Kurtag seems everywhere at the moment: we could almost talk of "Kurtag fever". Stele, which the CBSO under Sakari Oramo paraded round Birmingham, London and Radio 3 this week, is Kurtag's first "orchestral" work since the early Viola Concerto, also heard recently. The orchestra he uses here is vast; one can't talk of a woodwind section, more an oboe section or flute section – half a dozen of each (plus three Wagner tubas) – and what weird and wonderful things he gives them to do in 10 minutes or so.

Those tiny, confidential, chromatic opening motifs in rocking oboe and trumpet – compare and contrast the vivid motivic Nocturnal outburst amid the slow movement of Bartok's Piano Concerto No 3, which followed – seem to stay with us forever, nudging and jostling for place around this vast array, mysteriously whispering in bass and contrabass clarinet, searing through in flute sextet, batted around between wind and brass.

Transylvanian-born (like Bartok and Ligeti), Kurtag knows his Poles and Russians too. The pumping patterns in brass have the cutting power of Lutoslawski; the slow section – with Birmingham's echo chambers open wide to dilate timbres where a tuba forms Kurtag's forlorn sole bass line – feels like some desolate steppes scene from Boris Godunov or Eisenstein's film Ivan Grozny. As Oramo pointed out, this part is indeed an epigraph for Kurtag's friend and teacher Andras Mihaly.

Kurtag's 4 Capriccios, brisk settings of texts by Istvan Balint, have the lapidary, cryptic quality of Mallarmé. Such lines as "You tear the cat from the rug/To throw into the shadow of my open umbrella"may be more Apollinaire or Satie, but the soprano Anu Komsi relaxedly charted her way round Magyar tongue-twisters such as "essunk tul rajta" (let's get it over with) or "hogy a szemek fuggonyen folt esik" (the curtain of the eyes gets soiled), bringing to mind those Berio-era soprano Houdinis, Mary Thomas and Jane Manning. Mysterious bongos and a sliver of descending brass brought an exquisite close to these four polished nuts.

Early in Stravinsky's revised Firebird Suite (1945) the CBSO's cellos fell just adrift of urgent double basses, woodwind rhythms were a bit of an initial patchwork, and the tutti lacked Scriabinesque languor. Yet this was a wonderfully dark opening, as mysteriously mischievous as Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream. Oboe, flute and violin solos soon excelled, the Kastchei scene exploded, and despite two avoidable exposed glitches, Elspeth Taylor's horn solos were beautifully mellow.

I wish I could applaud Bartok's Third Piano Concerto in the hands of Steven Osborne (replacing Zoltan Kocsis): a nice classical poise, and certainly scintillation, but I heard too much surface-only bravura, overly four-square statement, a lack of any undertow and scant symbiosis with orchestra.

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