Kurtag lifts the silence

Times Staff Writer

SEX, in Budapest, requires a Z. And if you desire an espresso to accompany some of the world’s plumpest, most seductive apple strudel, you will need two Zs plus an accent mark. Formidable to a foreigner, Hungarian is a language of consonant-plump words: hence, szex and eszpresszo.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Hungarian culture, and especially its music, can also display the quality of excessive addition, to say nothing of caffeinated energy and complicated eroticism. Liszt, the country’s most celebrated composer, all but invented sex appeal at the keyboard, along with modern harmony, and he had, in his middle years, no problem with flashy excess. Bartok and Ligeti, also Hungarian inventors of musical styles and advancers of Europe’s musical language, wrote works once thought scandalous (such as the former’s prostitute-centered ballet, “The Miraculous Mandarin,” and the latter’s profane opera, “Le Grand Macabre”).

But Gyorgy Kurtag, today’s leading Hungarian composer, is a little different. His spirit is more difficult to locate amid the grim grime of Budapest’s streets or the looming, flamboyant presence of Gothic public buildings that line the Danube and give the city a ghostly aura in a gloomy November fog and drizzle.

A paragon of purity, Kurtag has said, “I keep coming back to the realization that one note is almost enough.” He has endured periods of composer-block silence when even a single note was too difficult to come up with. His “Kafka Fragments” -- a cycle of 40 bits of spiritually and sexually elusive but explosive Kafka-coded flotsam and jetsam for soprano and violin -- which will receive a rare performance this afternoon as part of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series at Zipper Concert Hall -- begins with the violinist playing only two notes, back and forth and, the composer instructs, “indifferently.”


There is, however, no less indifferent music in all of Hungary or anywhere else for that matter. Kurtag culled the text from Kafka’s diaries and letters to create a stumbling journey of the writer’s gaunt, haunted soul. The violin’s two notes represent “the march of the good.” The soprano, who sings brilliant rings around her unwavering accompaniment, offers the dance of “the others.” And the path followed for the next hour is “miserable life” enlivened: breath and suffocation, good and bad, heaven and hell, spirit and flesh, entwined.

The two notes of the violin symbolizing the duality of existence keep coming back. Coitus, Kafka wrote, is “punishment of the happiness of being together.” That is the 22nd fragment of Kurtag’s cycle -- its center. Two years ago, Peter Sellars staged the cycle for soprano Dawn Upshaw in Carnegie Hall as an unforgettable moment of psychically charged domesticity in the time of war. At Zipper the performers will be soprano Tony Arnold and violinist Movses Pogossian.

Kurtag turned 80 last year, and my visit to Budapest was to inhale a few lungfuls of his atmosphere, even though he doesn’t live here any longer (having moved to Paris four years ago) and Hungary honors him uneasily.

In an interview for the Hungarian Quarterly three years ago, Andras Schiff, the celebrated Hungarian pianist who left Budapest years ago, mentions the jealous reaction by parts of the local intellectual community when Imre Kertesz, the luminous Hungarian writer, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. “In the case of Kurtag, Kertesz and myself,” Schiff said, “it is not possible to dodge the issue of anti-Semitism.”

Last February, the Liszt Academy, where Kurtag taught for many years, presented a four-day celebration for his birthday. The Budapest Spring Festival included a Kurtag evening. But since then, it appears to have been pretty much Kurtagian silence around here.

CDs of his music are more plentiful (and considerably cheaper) at Amoeba Music in Hollywood than in Budapest’s largest record shops. Hungarian music is a regular part of the offerings at the new Palace of the Arts, a performing arts complex that includes two concert halls, a modern art museum and the National Theater. But I don’t spot Kurtag’s name in the thick booklet that lists the hundred or so concerts in its Bela Bartok Concert Hall and the smaller chamber music venue from July through the end of 2006.


Indeed, the place to find Kurtag in late November was nearby Vienna, where Wien Modern, the city’s monthlong new music festival, paid tribute to his work. Pianists Maurizio Pollini and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Hagen Quartet, the Hungarian composer-conductor Peter Eotvos took part. Kurtag and his wife, Marta, gave a radiantly moving joint piano recital, playing excerpts from the “Jatekok” (Games) series, tiny pieces, many in memory or honor of friends.

The Musikverein and the Konzerthaus, two of Vienna’s -- and the music world’s -- most hallowed venues, glowed when Kurtag’s ethereal miniatures bloomed in these special spaces. In the New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote of the Kurtags’ Konzerthaus’ recital. He called their performance of Kurtag’s arrangement of the opening movement of Bach’s cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die Allerbeste Zeit” “one of the most beautiful things” he had ever heard. He wasn’t alone. These walls have surely witnessed great Bach before. But that night I sensed his uncanny presence through a direct spiritual descendant.

Still -- or maybe because Kurtag’s music proved so overpowering in Vienna -- I felt a strong urge to spend a day or two in Budapest, to mingle with Kurtag’s ghosts. Kurtag’s ghosts were the theme of a program in tribute to the composer by the quirkily adventurous Italian pianist Marino Formenti at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last spring. Those ghosts were musical, and they included the likes of Machaut, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Bartok, Janacek, Webern, Messiaen, Stockhausen and Boulez.

Kurtag is a peculiar, reclusive man, said to be difficult. He refuses interviews. But he is also impressively cosmopolitan. He speaks Romanian, Hungarian, German, French, Russian, English and Greek. His ghosts are, certainly, those above composers and many others, including Scarlatti, Stravinsky and John Cage. But they are writers too. Kurtag learned Russian to read Dostoevsky and to compose songs to texts by Russian writers. He is drawn to Samuel Beckett. In “... pas a pas -- nulle part ...” for baritone, string trio and percussion, impenetrable Beckett poems take on extraordinary new dimensions of impenetrability, making the ear stand at attention.

Kurtag was born in the Transylvanian town of Lugos, now part of Romania. He came to Budapest in 1945 hoping to study piano with Bartok. The famed composer, who had fled the Nazis and settled in New York during the war, was planning to return to Hungary. But he died that year. And Kurtag spent the next decade attempting to find his own voice.

He didn’t find it in Budapest, which went from one totalitarian rule to another, as the Soviets replaced the Nazis. Though barely more than two hours by train from Vienna, the city was cut off artistically from the blossoming European avant-garde. Hungarian composers were expected to toe the line with Soviet-approved social realist music. In the early ‘50s, Kurtag wrote a “Korean” Cantata, in which he expressed solidarity to the Korean people in their battle with the U.S.


But after the failed popular revolution of 1956, Kurtag was able to leave the country and spend a year in Paris, where he studied music with Messiaen and Milhaud, worked with the psychologist Marianne Stein and fell under the spell of Beckett. All of this led to his thinking about music not as an additive process but as one of subtraction, and he began reducing his work to the bare, and then the barest, essentials.

Even a short stay in Budapest reveals just what an act of will that can be for a Hungarian artist. Although many years now since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Budapest still struggles with its Communist legacy. The 50th anniversary of the failed 1956 revolution, when for a brief moment before the Soviet tanks took over the streets it appeared that student-led demonstrations might liberalize the country, is commemorated everywhere. With a president once connected to Communists, the anniversary fostered last October the most dramatic demonstrations here in half a century.

Around the corner from the Liszt Academy is the former headquarters of the Soviet secret police. Its exterior is baroquely decorated with small portraits of Hungarians killed in the 1956 rebellion. In front of each are candles, relics, and fresh and decayed flowers. Nearby streets are dirty obstacle courses. Nearby shopkeepers are seriously unfriendly.

Gone his own way

WITH new concert halls and opera houses designed by Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog & de Meuron and other star architects popping up throughout Europe, the Palace of Arts, about two miles down the Danube from the center of Pest, is an unsettling return to stodgy Soviet architecture. At a concert in Bartok Hall, with unsubtle acoustics by Artec (the firm responsible for Costa Mesa’s new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall), I heard an interminable 3 1/2 -hour recital by two unflappably humorless Hungarian pianists (Jeno Jando and Karoly Mocsari) who hammered out all 19 of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, removing the fun and charm from these wonderful show pieces.

In such a context it is easy to understand why Kurtag might choose the path of withdrawal into his own hermetic art. But he has role models. Liszt, in his old age, turned to the church and wrote his own hermetically, harmonically weird, meditative music. Bartok’s late style is a relaxation from his rhythmically revolutionary music. And though the greatest work of such noted Hungarian writers as Peter Nadas and Peter Esterhazy are thick, philosophically dense novels, Kertesz has been joining Kurtag in an increasingly concentrated, interior, Beckettian style.

But leave it to Kurtag to go even against this trend of reduction. His latest pieces are suddenly longer. A concerto for violin and viola, “... concertante ...” -- which was awarded the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award for composition last year -- is an expansive single movement lasting some 25 minutes. A recent long piece for solo violin, “Hipartita,” was played by Hiromi Kikuchi in Vienna as the first half the recital by the Kurtags.


These long pieces are ultimately private works as well and made up of smaller bits. In the notes to an outstanding recent recording of “Kafka Fragments” performed by soprano Juliane Banse and pianist Andras Keller, Paul Griffiths finds the perfect metaphor for Kurtag’s approach, comparing the fragments to “bits of crumpled paper which, when dropped into water (the music), unfold into flowers.”

In the longer pieces, Kurtag does the unfolding for us, but he does not do the deciphering. His work, miniature or not, is still the music of psychic landmines, of bombshells that once they explode in the ear won’t leave you alone.

An hourlong documentary on the composer made in 2000 and lately released on DVD is titled “The Matchstick Man.” The most striking moment is when he explains how to begin as a composer. He sings a Gregorian melody on one note, adding a little twist, and another.

His voice is, for a composer and an old man, startlingly beautiful, like a choirboy’s almost. Showing him composing through the arithmetic addition, he suddenly seems very Hungarian. But it is not difficult to sense how much effort this takes, how much he had to go through to find that note on which to begin. And once he has it, he never leaves it for long, however elaborately he embellishes it. He always returns lovingly home. He adds Zs, then takes them away again. The focus, like all those accents in Hungarian, is acute.

Likewise, when Kurtag and his wife play, they never lose focus on each other. During solo pieces, one pianist turns the pages for the other. Husband hovers over wife like a guardian angel (and vice versa).

Both, in fact, play like angels, and their sound is out of this world. A special upright piano is used. The soft pedal is permanently depressed and the instrument is lightly amplified. The result is never bright. Darkness does not turn to light. The piano’s muddy tone does not become clear. But a soft radiation is emitted that warms the heart.

As for eszpresszo: Like the “Jatekok” -- it’s dark and clear. It’s bitter. It’s got a kick. And it’s delicious.



Dilijan Chamber Music Series

Where: Zipper Concert Hall, Colburn School of Performing Arts, 200 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 3 p.m. today

Price: $10 to $35

Contact: (818) 572-5438