Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Kurtag Limit - Aldeburgh 2008

In physics there are two ways in which materials deform - plastically and elastically. Perhaps the best way to think of this is one of those shatter resistant rulers you may have had at school, or indeed since. Bend it and, normally, it will spring back into place as if nothing has happened: it has just be deformed elastically, when the stress is removed it returns to its normal shape. However, apply too much stress and it will deform plastically, normally marked by the point being bent becoming more opaque; now when the stress is removed the ruler remains deformed. The elastic limit is the point at which you can apply maximum stress without suffering plastic deformation.

All very interesting, you may or may not say, but what does any of this have to do with music. I would propose a Kurtag Limit. This is the point at which a piece of music has stretched your interest to breaking point and past which will not regain it. I reached that point tonight at about the time violinist Hiromi Kikuchi had made her way across about one third of the stage at the Maltings.

I suppose that description requires further elucidation. This evening's concert was perhaps the centrepiece of this year's Kurtag celebrations, the programme was effectively all Kurtag. It began with the performance by Kikuchi of his HiPartita for solo violin, op.43. The stage was quite a sight: a line of music stands perhaps seven meters long, sheet music continuous from one to the next, microphones at the middle and either end and speakers behind. Kikuchi moved from one end to the other as she played. Some of the tones the instrument produced were interesting enough, but there was no obvious structure and the piece didn't seem to build anywhere. At one third of the way I lost interest. Things didn't improve when she reached the end: instead of stopping, she worked her way back to the middle. Now, clearly she is a very talented violinist. However, to these ears, those talents were being tragically misapplied. Mitsuko Uchida was in the audience, would that they'd got her on stage and we could have had a nice sonata from the two of them. A word must also be said about the amplification, there didn't appear to be any, so it must have been very subtly done, if at all (not least because given the microphones were placed in front of the speakers, feedback loops must surely have been a worry).

The not very full audience had thinned somewhat during the interval, onstage some microphones had gone and there was now an upright piano. Kurtag himself, along with his wife Marta, emerged to play Jatekok (which roughly translates as 'Games'), a series of miniatures alternately for two and four hands. Apparently intended as playthings for children with regard to the piano, which was the rational behind using the obviously amplified (though quite interestingly so) upright as opposed to a concert grand. In fairness to Kurtag, unlike in the HiPartita, I did not reach the Kurtag Limit; indeed, it was by far the most interesting of his pieces I have heard, though that isn't saying terribly much. The chemistry of this old married couple was reasonably engaging. It did not, however, make for great music. Neither did the quality of either's pianism, which was at best unremarkable. By interspersing his pieces with transcriptions from Bartok and Bach he did himself few favours with comparison. It seemed like they could have come in any order and none of them were especially evocative of anything, compare this to the coherence and vividness of Ades's similarly themed Living Toys. The most interesting of them Merran's Dream - Caliban detecting - rebuilding Mirranda's Dream only grabbed my attention by dint of the names apparently deriving from my favourite Shakespeare play, however the music did little to evoke them.

But the Kurtag groupies were out in force. As the lights dimmed at the end of the interval, they dashed forward to the many better seats that had become available and they cheered their hero to the rafters. Plenty of other people seemed to have enjoyed it too, but a good number gave what can best be described as polite applause. We got several encores and at one point I worried we might be trapped all night. The last was in some ways the most revealing: Bach's Sheep may safely graze. Incredibly beautiful and one of my favourite of his pieces, but the Kurtags' playing of it was fairly mundane, and at times arguably a clunky; compare this to Leon Fleisher's recent recording on his album Two Hands, which is of near desert island quality, the more impressive since for most of his professional career, and until fairly recently, he has been unable to play with his right hand.

The Kurtags maintained their air of modesty, yet a glance at his biography suggests this is of the faux variety. Far from the impression we had on Sunday that performance of his music was a shock, he has in fact been composer in residence twice with the BPO. I hope he didn't shake the hand of everyone in the orchestra when they played one of his pieces, as he did on Sunday, as that would have made for a very long evening.

Clearly this music appeals to some, though aside from finding the Kurtags a charming couple, nobody, the programme notes include, has provided me further enlightenment as to why this may be (they are welcome to do so below). If there is another celebration of his work in the future, your correspondent will steer well clear.

Escape doesn't come yet, though. Tomorrow, Aimard plays some of Jatekok interspersed in some of Bach's Art of Fugue.

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