Review of Thoroughly Good Classical Music: I’ve been in Budapest for a few days at the concluding concerts in Budapest’s week-long centenary celebration of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. These celebratory events programmed by lifelong friend and peer György Kurtág, included music by both composers. The experience has been profound. Exactly what Thoroughly Good is fuelled by: opportunities for discovery.
Pianist Vikinger Olaffason and cellist Stephen Isserlis decorated the marathon programmes, alongside pianists Csalog Gabor, Nicolas Namoradze, and Kemenes Andras, viola player Kim Kashkashian. The final concert in the series spotlighted the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra who visit the UK in September for a tour of Fairfield, Cadogan and Usher Halls amongst others with a programme of Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven.
Sandwiched in between both concerts, an official unveiling of a street renamed in György Ligeti’s memory, a few minutes walk away from the River Danube, introduced with a speech given by wheelchair-bound Kurtág and Ligeti’s wife Vera.
And with good reason. Both celebrated composers create music that demands attention, texturally, harmonically, and dynamically. Both concerts demonstrated these thought-provoking contrasts in creations borne out of their different experiences throughout the 20th century.
Hungarian-born Austrian composer György Ligeti was born of Jewish parents in 1923. Romanian Kurtag born of Hungarian parents was born three years later. Both studied at the Budapest Music Academy sharing two of the same teachers. Aside from studies at Paris Conservatoire with Messiaen and Milhaud in 1957 and a scholarship to Berlin in 1971, Kurtág spent most of his life in Hungary, disconnected from the international scene. It was Ligeti who left Hungary after the Uprising, first for Vienna then later Cologne and Paris, immersing himself in the then-western avant-garde of the likes of Varese and Stockhausen. He wouldn’t return to Hungary for 14 years.
The development of Ligeti’s musical language was illustrated in the Concerto Budapest concert. This concluding concert of the Ligeti Festival began with the composer’s fun folk-infused ‘concerto’ suite Concert Romanesc from 1951 (reminiscent of his teacher Kodaly’s Hary Janos suite from 1926). His chamber orchestra work Ramifications from ten years later with a split string orchestra, half the players tuned a quarter-tone higher than the other half, illustrated Ligeti’s fascination with micro-tones and the unsettling sound world they can create.
To complete the first-half survey, Mysteries of the Macabre featuring soprano Sarah Defrise giving a tour-de-force performance of Ligeti’s coloratura arias arranged by Elgar Howarth in 1978 from Ligeti’s only opera Le Grand Macabre. Here there’s a return to melody albeit a highly fractured contorted feel punctuated with uneven stresses, and stratospheric notes, underpinned with frenetic activity and a cabaret theatre ambience. Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra make light work of the complexities of the score, executing with drive and precision in the warm but unforgiving acoustic of Budapest Music Centre.
In these works, Ligeti’s international appeal is evident, rhythms, textures and harmonies all slightly subverted. These elements combine to command attention in live performance because of their apparent ‘newness’. This in turn leaves a sense of urgency and excitement.
Even the relatively early light waltz from Musica ricercata is given a barbed, menacing edge when played on the barrel organ. This was the first I heard across the two concert celebration and for me set the mood for everything that followed. Warm applause followed for performer Pierre Charial who dutifully turned the wheel on the barrel organ.
Kurtág’s music in comparison is considerably more challenging to comprehend on a first listen. The composer’s approach has consistently been to strip back extraneous sound, leave behind what feels like only the key sounds in order to mark out a vast landscape. It is as though he’s providing only the black-and-white sketch leaving us to imagine the bits in between. There is something deliciously counter-intuitive about for example, hearing a solo viola playing a series of notes in a suite of miniature movements in viola player Kim Kashkasian’s performance of Signs, Games and Messages. In this work, apparently devoid of conventional time signatures, only intense intention driving the sounding of each note, the image of an infinite expanse emerged and our minuscule part in it. Quite some achievement with so little written on the page.
In this way, a newcomer might distinguish Ligeti’s sound world as fun, with Kurtág’s comparatively hard work. But what links them is a remarkable Kurtag’s sound on the other hand has a purer quality to it. Stripped back, highly intentional, growing from small ideas into something homogeneous. There’s a sense that Kurtág’s stark sound brings order to chaos, silences prompting all in the room to lean in intently. Stillness results.
What links both men’s work (certainly in the works I’ve heard is how both create beauty, connecting composer, musicians and audience in a unique profound way, even if in the moment what you’re listening to doesn’t immediately present itself as something you’d actively want to listen to. It is in this way music as art: sound that prompts profound internal reflection but in a remarkably immediate way.
It’s a far cry from when I was studying both composers’ output as part of my degree. In 1993 post-war modern music as a splintered genre offered a world of discovery, that on the one hand seemed welcoming and easy to comprehend. Here was innovation reacting boldly to the received wisdom of the past, using new sounds, clashing chords, and mind-bending graphic scores to jab at the boundaries of convention. The likes of Babbit, Berio, Reich and Cage seemed cutting edge – lots of sharp angles and polished concrete. This avant-garde had a sophisticated style. They were thinking about music in an entirely different way something process driven. In some respects that made them interesting simply because they were freeing themselves from the constraints of the past.
These were discoveries through academic study rather than practical application. Textbook descriptions of ideas realised in seemingly laboratory conditions took the place of live performances or available recordings. Studying post-war music increased my appetite for study just at the moment in time my peers had embarked on revising for their finals. Appetite fuelled assimilation and resulted in an unexpected bonus – I saw in the eyes of my parents exactly the kind of shock and irritation when I described some of the works of John Cage to them as I imagine the composer himself intended in the first place. But these studies tested, examined and scored as they necessitated the use of academic language itself. The very language used elevated the art form, sealing its reputation as aloof, esoteric and for some even a joke.
The present-day equivalent habit of virtue signalling affords those looking to make the present avant-garde, contemporary and new music rich pickings for those looking to develop their personal brand. Contemporary is the preferred soundtrack for the iconoclasts who unwittingly don the very same cloak of superiority they believe new music sought to shed in the first place. The stark sounds of post-war modernists sit alongside their newer counterparts, performances of their work now occupy ‘edgy’ unconventional spaces. The music of Ligeti and Kurtag (amongst a whole host of others) is often currency leveraged by those with an avoidant/dismissive attachment style, people who strive to maintain an exquisite remove. The very fans modern music tends to attract are the very people who unwittingly act as a barrier to more people appreciating the very art itself.
In rehearsals for the final concert, Budapest Concerto conducted by Andras Keller received emphatic feedback from 97-year-old composer Kurtág who sat close to the podium in his wheelchair gesturing intention and identifying correction. This meticulous attention to detail underlined the need that the audience to pay close attention to the sounds the composer has scored. Everything is there for a reason; nothing must be glossed over. Here in this moment, there is evidence of one of the 20th century’s true musical innovators still burning bright, making exploration of his comparatively small portfolio of intense creations a tantalising opportunity.
After the rehearsal, I ask conductor Andras Keller what the newcomer to Kurtág’s music can expect to hear of this very distinct musical language. “Kurtág’s music is concerned with the concentration of the human and musical texture. This element needs to be so very strong and tight. The form he provides is very small too. We are therefore having to work on the shortest possible element. Kurtag fulfilled in each time the material is repeated incredible tension and more meaning. These rehearsals are the first search for that meaning. We can spend millions of hours potentially searching for that tiny gesture.”
The irony is that those moments during the weekend when it was possible to connect most immediately to the work of György Kurtág was when his work was juxtaposed with other composers output, as in pianist Viknunger Olafsson’s Bach, Bartok and Mozart tribute to Kurtág. Sounds conceived as a reaction against convention settle in comfortably with that which preceded it, everything surrounding it softening the hard edges. This acts as a reminder of how once again it is the language used to discuss music rather than the music itself which has not only differentiated it, but made it seem inaccessible. Yet the music of Kurtág and Ligeti are part of a continuum that aren’t especially different in effect than that which went before or that which followed. Quite when we start regarding their output as part of music’s ongoing evolution is difficult to work out.