After immensely successful debut tour of the UK in June 2022, we’re delighted to announce the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra UK, Ireland Tour 2023 to open our season. Concerto Budapest will be performing in the UK's and Ireland's most renowned concert halls with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Mihaly Berecz pianists in September.
Rather than opening their Usher Hall concert with the traditional overture, András Keller started with Mozart’s late Symphony No.40. The orchestra was chamber size – and except for the cello and double bass players – all the musicians were standing. One heard a clear projection of Mozart’s genial score from the supple strings (led by Zsófia Környei) and the charming woodwind – one could see from the smiles on the faces of Keller’s musicians how much they enjoy this music. There was crisp intonation from the strings in the lyrical, contrapuntal opening, enhanced by a beautiful solo from the flute of Orsolya Kaczander. In the Menuetto, the playing was fiery, set at a fast tempo to the charmingly accented Allegretto-Trio. Keller maintained the brisk pace into the celebratory Finale. Allegro assai. This very musical performance was like a breath of fresh air – immaculately performed by the Hungarians in a speedy time of just twenty-four minutes!
Joined by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the orchestra revealed how they can combine the classicism of the opening work with the modernism of their compatriot Bartók. In the opening Allegretto, shared with the gentle thumps from Böglárka Fabry on the timpani, a different world opened up with the sharp rhythmic profile of the first theme by the soloist announced in powerful octaves and accompanied by the secondary woodwind ideas. Heard against the harmony of the strings (now led by Miranda Liu, the associate leader of the violins) fascinating keyboard playing allowed a mixture of emotions ranging from intimacy to wild excitement immaculately accompanied by the orchestra. The devastatingly crushing theme was overwhelmingly dramatic under Keller’s direction.
In the Adagio religioso, all the harmonic beauty of Bartók’s folk-inspired ideas emerged on the magnificent strings, and again, the flute of Kaczander and Bálint Horváth’s oboe were masterly, while the thrilling changing of tempos gave the piece extra excitement heard against the exchanges on the keyboard. The upbeat themes from the piano opened the chorale-like idea in the Allegro vivace finale, with the enticing dancing rhythms in the interchange between major and minor keys all played with exotic charm and marvellous brass playing leading to the celebratory close. Aimard, in response to the audience’s rapturous applause played an encore by Hungary’s greatest living composer György Kurtág in memory of his teacher Ligeti in this centenary year – A Ligatura for Ligeti.
From the first bars of Mozart, I was very impressed by the clear, pure sound of the violins as they throbbed with nervous energy. Equally noteworthy were the sharp rhythms and crisp staccatos as the players interacted with one another as if in a small chamber group. Appropriately, Keller, founder of the Keller Quartet, elicited deft shades of mood from suave mezzo pianos to explosive fortes, still in keeping with the classical context of the work.
This was evident too in the graceful shaping of the melody of the Andante or the more robust handling in the Allegretto. In this latter movement the horn’s line was crisply delineated against the patina of sound. The Finale bristled with nervous energy bouncing from each subito forte with mischievous abandonment. The lyrical sweep of the second subject was in complete contrast to the proceeding section, evidently enjoyed by all the players. I would have liked a little more heft from the cellos in their antiphonal exchange with the violins, but overall this was an imaginative and vivid account.
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On the previous tour, the soloist had been Angela Hewitt, and the venues Cadogan Hall in London, G-Live, Basingstoke, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. The Honorary President is György Kurtág, no less, In 2022, Peter Eötvös became Principal Guest Conductor. Their Music Director since 2007 is András Keller, violinist and founder of the Keller Quartet. Keller is a recipient of the prestigious Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s highest honour for the arts. Keller is also allied to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he is a Professor.
Keller leads the players expertly, and they respond in kind. I suspect some of the midrange detail was slightly muddied because of G-Live’s acoustic, Keller had his strings (those that can) standing for the Mozart 40, a performance of substantial fire. Keller opted to use only a couple of double basses, but they grounded the sound nicely, and the inclusion of the exposition repeat worked perfectly in context. The surprise was the speed of the Andante – if this was walking pace, it was power walking, an easy two to the bar as opposed to six, which lent a somewhat surprising level of excitement to the performance. Brisk, sharp staccatos enlivened the Menuetto (the excellent woodwind section shining in the Trio) before preternaturally accurate violins launched the finale. Generally fast speeds and clean-cut phrasing left this Mozart 40 feeling decidedly refreshing.
(There is an article here on Seen and Heard International about the tour.)
After an acclaimed debut UK tour in 2022, Thursday night saw a return engagement for the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra: not, at present, Hungary’s most fêted ensemble but one that, on this form, more than deserves its loud hosannas. Founded (as the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra) before the First World War, led since 2007 by violinist-turned-conductor András Keller, Concerto Budapest brought idiomatic warmth, pulsating energy and infectious enthusiasm to a programme of two fail-safe favourites divided by the twilight struggle and serenity of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist.
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The Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1907, originally as the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, taking its present name a century later, when András Keller was appointed artistic director and chief conductor. Under his tenure, they have become one of Hungary’s more prominent orchestras, and are partway through a UK tour, which reveals that they are indeed an excellent ensemble with a distinctive sound, the strings lean rather than plush, the woodwind poised and expressive, the brass warmly vibrant. Keller, meanwhile, also well known as a violinist, and founder of the string quartet that takes his name, brings a chamber musician’s instinct for detail to his conducting, with results that can be compelling.
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Photo: Laszlo Mudra
The answer is that unlike the UK, Hungary is actually proud of its classical music culture, and has a government which though odious in many ways is at least willing to subsidise a tour such as this. That’s something the classical-music lovers of Guildford must be grateful for, as they were treated to something special. It was a generous- sized band, with that unmistakably rich sound that central European orchestras have. It created an extraordinary power which was so much more than simple volume. There was a special unanimity of attack and phrasing, a way of sensitively rounding off a phrase, which was the opposite of regimented. Your eye and ear were constantly drawn to this or that energised violinist or flautist. On the podium was the orchestra’s music director Andras Keller. He’s a violinist by training, and his conducting technique is not exactly elegant to behold. But he has a wonderful ability to vary a speed so subtly that it seems rock-steady, until you become aware that the tempo has relaxed or tightened imperceptibly. That was a boon in the evening’s biggest piece, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. The first movement began in a way that was spacious yet urgent, and by the time we reached the hectic middle section it felt as if we were in the middle of an insurrection. The funeral march seemed a throwback to the slow, dignified pace orchestras used to adopt, but became lighter and brisker in the major-key section, in a way more like the so-called “period orchestras” of today. Keller is clearly someone who subscribes to no fashions. Mozart’s tragic 40th symphony was naturally more classical and “Grecian” but you could still feel the dramatic flexibility of tempo under the surface. In Bartok’s 3rd piano concerto, we heard another side to this orchestra; a proper Hungarian-folk fire and dash in the finale, and a relish in the mysterious nocturnal rustlings and hootings of the middle movement. The soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave this swan-song of the ailing composer a smiling, genial quality. It missed the tragic, haunted quality of András Schiff’s performance at the Proms some weeks back, but was engaging in its own way. Click HERE for the original article on the website of Telegraph
Photo: Csilla Cseke
András Keller’s life began similar to many other professional musicians, when he took up the violin at the age of seven. But it quickly took the first of what would turn out to be a series of unexpected turns. “I was quite good – not exceptional, but I was winning competitions for young people,” says the leader of the celebrated Keller string quartet, who makes his Irish conducting debut with the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra next week. The first turnaround came when he caught scarlet fever at the age of 10 and had to stay at home for five or six weeks. “The parents went to work,” he says. “I stayed home, alone, and I discovered music.”
His father, an economist, was a passionate amateur musician with a large collection of LPs and scores, which Keller started exploring. While laid up, he made what he calls “a lifelong real friendship with music. And after that, everything had changed.”
He went to the Liszt Academy in his native Budapest at the age of 14, in the mid-1970s – “one of the golden ages”, he calls it, “with incredible teachers, tutors, professors and a unique atmosphere”.
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Conductors like to talk in the grand manner about “my orchestra” and “my players”, perhaps forgetting that these musicians have lives of their own and even play for other conductors too. Though he does not do so, András Keller might be justified in claiming some degree of ownership over Concerto Budapest. The orchestra’s revival under his direction over the last 15 years tells a remarkable story: a parable of cultural life in eastern Europe post-1989, and yet also an exemplar of what becomes possible with the will to overcome. Their playing tells this story, too, as audiences in the UK and Ireland will be able to hear for themselves in September, when Concerto Budapest gives concerts in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cheltenham, Guildford and Croydon.
Keller established himself as leader and founder of the renowned string quartet bearing his name, and as a concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and National Philharmonic Orchestra of Hungary. He had already begun to take up the baton when, in 2007, Keller went to audition for the director’s post of the Telekom Orchestra in Budapest, formed a century earlier as part of the Hungarian Post Office and previously state-owned. Up against candidates from across the world, he got the job, only to be told before long that there was no more money. Keller pushed back, as he tells me on a call from Budapest. “I’m very proud that for the next three years, the orchestra continued to receive that support. It felt like a personal success for me that this huge company which had decided not to support classical music kept some faith in me.”
The plug was finally pulled in 2010. “Should the orchestra – the second oldest in Hungary – just be left to die? I had very little time to decide, hardly more than a day.” With his own funds, and with the goodwill of his players, Keller reformed the orchestra as Concerto Budapest. A few months later, surviving at that stage by the skin of their teeth, they held a vote on the orchestra’s future. Everyone voted in. “This gave us a special strength,” Keller reflects to me.
“We showed to ourselves and to the rest of the world that we wanted Concerto Budapest to succeed.”
So they did, season by season, ironically attracting back much of the state support that the orchestra had lost in the first place, and they became a state-funded orchestra in 2012. Alongside a regular season of symphony concerts, Concerto Budapest stages an annual festival of new music (the “Day of Listening”), with performances taking place almost continuously for 12 hours. “It’s important for players to immerse themselves in different styles. I never believe in a musician who seems to be very good in new music, but cannot play Mozart.”
This breadth of ambition and vision was a hallmark of the Keller Quartet’s work, with its bracing juxtapositions of Bach and Kurtág, Ligeti and Barber, Beethoven and Knaifel, all captured for posterity by the ECM label. Just as Kurtág and Ligeti would demand every last ounce of imagination and energy from Keller and his colleagues in rehearsal, so Keller has learnt how to draw out the best from the players of Concerto Budapest. “When a quartet is rehearsing,” he reflects, “this is the most beautiful, the most intimate and the most difficult work which I can imagine. In an orchestra, it’s different. Musicians must sometimes behave like soldiers, sometimes like individuals, and sometimes in groups working together. They must find a goal, and our goal is to listen.”
Before our conversation, Keller has been rehearsing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. He describes getting 60 players to approach the second-movement Allegretto as though making only the smallest sound inside their own mouths. “It’s a miracle. And, by the way, I feel that making this miracle happen is more important now than ever. I deeply believe that music can save the world. This is not so much – or not only – about politics, but about the frustration of being human. And music can show people where to go, which direction to take. Even when an audience knows nothing behind the music, so to say, they can distinguish very clearly between performers who have something to say, and those who are just placing the notes. This is what I learned from Kurtág, from Ferenc Rados, from Sándor Vegh, who were on an endless search for the truth of the music. This was my education, and this is what I try to pass on.”
Concerto Budapest stated its credentials to UK audiences with a week-long tour in 2022, gathering acclaim en route for their performances of Mozart with Angela Hewitt, Beethoven’s Fifth and an electric account of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The German audiophile label Tacet has captured the Concerto in studio conditions but with a thrilling sense of immediacy, and other readers beyond Hungary and the UK may explore Concerto Budapest’s rebirth for themselves in the award-winning film of the orchestra in concert, Carpathian Rhapsody, directed by Imre Szabó Stein. It seems appropriate that the centrepiece of the orchestra’s 2023 tour should be the Eroica. Hungarian-flavoured Beethoven has a particular strength and independence of mind, demonstrated afresh by the new symphony cycle on Deutsche Grammophon conducted by Keller’s friend (and fellow ex-quartet leader) Gabor Takács-Nagy.
When preparing to conduct the Beethoven symphonies for himself, Keller addressed himself seriously to the composer’s metronome marks when learning the scores. Then he remembered a conversation with Ligeti. “I asked him, ‘Why did you write such incredible unplayable tempi in your scores?’. And he answered, ‘Because I wanted to push you to sacrifice everything you can for my music. When you do this, then you can decide which tempo sounds the best.’ And this is beautiful advice. We have to be able to play every tempo – but a metronomic tempo is inhuman. I am a great lover of the metronome, but in a way which helps me control what we’re doing.”
Keller understands better than most of us the particular richness of the Hungarian string sound which is his heritage, stretching back to the schools of Leo Weiner and Jenő Hubay. He is proud to nurture a living form of that heritage in his work with Concerto Budapest, but as he observes, this tradition comes with its own limitations. “I have a daily fight. Hungarians always accent the top of the word, as you can hear in my voice. Germans don’t do this at all” – and he draws out a pom-pom-pom like the opening of Brahms’s First. “So in Beethoven we have to find out how not to ‘play Hungarian’. It’s wonderful to keep our tone of voice in Mozart and Beethoven, a little bit, but it must fit the music.”
No less appropriately, the Eroica is prefaced in concert by Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, for which the orchestra is joined by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Keller is intensely happy with the pairing: “I think Bartók is the grandson of Beethoven. I don’t know any other example in musical history where two such different composers, so distant to each other in time, can be so close to each other.” He refers back to the famous 1940 Library of Congress recital where Bartók accompanies the violinist Joseph Szigeti in Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata: a timeless example of recreative fidelity to which Keller habitually directs his pupils as “a musical Bible. It’s better than any masterclass”.
© Marco Borggreve
By the time of that recital, Bartók had been exiled from his homeland by the Second World War, and the Third Piano Concerto of 1945 wears the scars of that exile in elusive ways, as an exemplar of his late style to set beside the Concerto for Orchestra and the Sixth String Quartet. After my conversation with Keller, Aimard teases out the relationship between Bartok and his material: “When he wrote his First Concerto in the middle of the 1920s, he wanted to be radical, to take his material to its most radical conclusions. Then in the Second Concerto, there is a wish to turn towards his audience. And by the time we come to the Third Concerto, we find him an immigrant, in quite a hostile environment. All this has an influence on the kind of music he writes. He is no longer a young man. He is much more prepared to compose with reference to the past. There is much less struggle.”
Aimard has worked with Concerto Budapest before, notably in a 2016 concert given to celebrate the 90th birthday of Kurtág. Does he think Bartók “speaks” Hungarian in his music, the way Keller believes that Beethoven speaks German? “I have to be modest in my answer!” he replies.
“I studied Hungarian quite seriously 30 years ago. Unfortunately I could never really speak the language properly, or only in a modest way – but I think that this experience was already good for understanding the DNA of this music, and the kinds of rhetorical and rhythmical structures within it. But in any case, the Third looks back so much to Classical-era forms.”
In 2023, the centenary of Ligeti’s birth is being celebrated worldwide, while Kurtág is still with us, and still composing, at 97. Aimard as well as Keller learned much from direct contact with both composers. In Keller’s Hungarian-accented reflections, and in his conducting of Concerto Budapest, their philosophy lives on. “We have a very strong identity together as an orchestra. Each sound has meaning. This is what I fight for every day. And it’s normal that I must push the musicians, because each of them would like to be better from one day to the next. And in pushing for more, we are searching for our own sound, and our own understanding. It’s important not to stay on the surface of the music, because when you imitate something, it’s not yours.”
By Peter Quantrill
© National Concert Hall Dublin
The concert opens with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 before the orchestra is joined by the distinguished French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard for Bartók’s soulful Third Piano Concerto (a piece written in the final years of his life).
To finish, András Keller leads the orchestra in Beethoven’s epic Eroica Symphony. Regarded as one of Beethoven’s most celebrated and revolutionary works due its scale, ambition and direction, it is often cited as heralding what was to come from Wagner, Mahler and others in the Romantic period. Indeed, it is regarded as one of the most significant pieces of music ever composed.
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550
Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 BB127
Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica
Presented by NCH
The orchestra will be performing a programme of rich, virtuoso music including Lizst’s Rhapsody No2 and Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto.
The pianist for the concert on September 12 is Mihaly Berecz, recipient of the Liszt-Bartók prize at the 15th Concours Géza Anda 2021.
Andras Keller, who has directed the Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra since 2007, will also conduct the orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with its famed finale. Before the concert, the Budapest musicians will also lead a workshop for children who attend the Fairfield Halls’ Yamaha Music School.
“Throughout our International Orchestral Series, young people from Croydon and across south London will enjoy meeting and learning from the world’s best classical music talent,”
- said Jonathan Higgins, Fairfield Halls’ associate director.
“These young people deserve front-row experiences and opportunities, and we’re happy that, together with this distinguished ensemble, we’re playing our part in delivering that.”
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine will be playing at the Fairfield Halls in October, on their biggest tour of this country in 100 years. Tickets for all the concerts in the series – including a multi-buy discount – are one sale now.
via Inside Croydon
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.
Photograph: Judit Marjai
‘I compose to seek the truth’
- György Kurtág on depression, totalitarianism and his 73-year marriage
He was mentored by Ligeti, too shy to meet Beckett, and half of one of the greatest ever musical and romantic partnerships. As his opera arrives at the Proms, the avant garde master gives a rare interview.
örgy Kurtág is not speaking metaphorically when he says he is quite content to spend the time he has left “living on Ligeti street”. He is with a small crowd gathered outside the Budapest Music Centre – in which he also resides – for the renaming ceremony of the road on which it stands. Formerly Imre Utca (street), it is now György Ligeti street, to mark the centenary of the Hungarian composer who was Kurtág’s longtime friend and mentor.
Kurtág, whose intense, intimate and often brief music could hardly be more different to Ligeti’s, spent years in the latter’s shadow; international recognition only came in the 80s. But even 17 years after Ligeti’s death, he can scarcely contemplate a conversation or a composition without referring to him. He rarely gives interviews, but has made an exception to mark his friend’s anniversary and the UK debut of his first opera.
He makes no secret of his insecurities, episodes of mental illness which sometimes paralysed – his word – his creativity for years at a time. Now 97, he wants to use his remaining years to concentrate on his music.
In the BMC he attends a rehearsal of the piece he has written to commemorate his friend. As Concerto Budapest performs Ligeti’s Century – Roaming in the Past, Kurtág sits behind its music director, András Keller, shadow-conducting from the score which quivers in his hands, and making the sounds he thinks the instruments should be making. “Yo-reee, not yo-ri”, he says. “Pa-DAL!”, he shouts, his elbow pushing into the arm of his wheelchair.
“The sound should be shredded, not whole,” he instructs the orchestra, or, he urges the cellists, who are playing pizzicato, to “enjoy the resonation more”; at another moment, “here you should convey a kind of doubt, and not be so confident”. A clarinet is admonished for allowing a horn to muffle its sound. There is much banter and laughter. It is pure entertainment to behold.
Kurtág is the last survivor of an outstanding generation of postwar avant garde composers that includes Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono, but he emphasises how important Hungarian composers Bartók and Kodály also were to both him and Ligeti. While Kurtág largely stayed in Communist Hungary, Ligeti escaped and settled in western Europe, though the two managed to remain closely connected.
Sitting in a wood-panelled rehearsal room at the BMC, Kurtág, speaking in German, clad in his house slippers and a tailored jacket, recalls their first meeting as being “like a lightning strike”, during the entrance exam for music school in September 1945.
“I read his scores and I could see that this was no student, but a full-blown musician. From that moment on, I was his follower, I was his satellite and orbited around him, and that was how our lifelong relationship was,” he says. “Even after his death I feel the connection to him, to his undiminished curiosity.”
The entire article is available on theguardian.com