Signs, Games and Messages, Purcell Room/Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A miniaturist worthy of a large-scale celebration
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The Independent Culture

Small may be beautiful, as Michael Church's preview had it last Friday for the South Bank Centre and the Royal Academy of Music's festival devoted to Gyorgy Kurtag. But Signs, Games and Messages is a large and ambitious event, running first at all three South Bank halls and then at the RAM, for two and a half weeks; the biggest-ever British exposure for Kurtag, though by no means all the music it contains is by this 76-year-old Hungarian miniaturist himself. Kurtag's works, too, may often be short, or at least built from sometimes aphoristic, and in themselves occasionally trite, pieces arranged in sequences. Yet the expressive consequences of those sequences can accumulate to deliver much more than the sum of their parts.

Last Saturday's generous opening day began with an eager and full house in the Purcell Room to hear the composer himself and his wife Marta play a 50-minute sequence, combining pieces either for piano duet or solo piano from the eight volumes entitled Jatekok, with some of Kurtag's own Bach arrangements, all the latter for duet. An encomium delivered by the pianist Michiko Uchida contributed further to the feeling of being at a special event.

The music – the Jatekok selection itself keeping closely, I think, to that of the 1992 CD recording – ranged back and forth between the whimsical to the deeply touching, with many other moods coloured in along the route. The Kurtags invested the Bach pieces with two lifetimes' worth of insight into how structural clarity can enhance expressive subtlety, and moved easily among the varied offerings from the Jatekok. If neither the arid surroundings nor the lunchtime hour were conducive to the loftiest meditations on how base metal can be turned to gold, the overall impact was undeniably impressive, if not deeply moving.

In the Queen Elizabeth Hall, some rather buttoned-up accounts of other Hungarian repertoire, from the BBC Singers under David Jones, preceded a more engaged encounter with Kurtag's Songs of Despair and Sorrow. Completed in 1994, this is a sometimes searing cycle of Russian settings of a variety of poets, in which the choir is intermittently accompanied by a bizarre ensemble, including four accordions and two harmoniums; here, the creditable Endymion Ensemble in disguise.

Later, the London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz gave an astonishingly relaxed reading of Stockhausen's Kontra-punkte and a sensitively spotlit performance of Luigi Nono's compelling Omaggio a Gyorgy Kurtag for four soloists and live electronics. Most notable of the other works heard during the evening was Messages of the Late Miss R V Troussova, the song cycle that established Kurtag's international reputation in the early 1980s. This expressive kaleidoscope benefited enormously from the soprano Claron McFadden's alert response to every one of the work's considerable demands.

Signs, Games and Messages, South Bank Centre (020-7960 4242) and Royal Academy of Music, London (020-7873 7300) to 10 May