György Kurtag’s Wind Quintet and Microludes

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Sounding Now Festival
Saturday, 13 April 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall


Contributed by Kong Tze Shiuan (BMus2, YST) & Chris Clarke (MMus2, YST)

György Kurtág was born at Lugos, Romania on 19 February 1926. From the young age of 14, he studied composition with Ferenc Farkas, who was also Ligeti’s teacher, as well as Leó Weiner, Lajos Bárdos, Pál Járdányi and others. Kurtág met Ligeti at the entrance examination at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1946 for the first time and the two of them became close friends. After attending the Academy, in 1957-58, Kurtág studied in Paris with Marianne Stein and attended the courses of Messiaen and Milhaud. Most important of all, however, were the sessions with the psychologist Marianne Stein who specialised in artists. She helped him overcome a crisis which had paralysed his creativity for years. Kurtág says the meeting with Marianne Stein divided his life in two – she gave him a new lease of life, so to speak. On his way back to Budapest, Kurtág stopped over in Cologne where he first met Ligeti after the latter’s escape from Hungary in 1956. Ligeti introduced Kurtág to Stockhausen whose Gruppen made a tremendous impact on him. So did Ligeti’s Artikulation, realised in the electronic studio of West German Radio. This led him to rethink his philosophies on composition, which led to his Op.1 (String Quartet, c. 1959). From 1967, he was assistant to Pál Kadosa at the Academy of Music, and the following year he was appointed to be the professor of chamber music. He held this post until his retirement in 1986 and subsequently continued to teach at the Academy until 1993. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall in the 1990s he has worked increasingly outside Hungary, as composer in residence with the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Konzerthaus, and a Paris residency at the invitation of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Festival d’Automne. Kurtág won the prestigious 2006 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his …concertante…. His opera Fin de Partie, based on Samuel Beckett’s play, was premiered by La Scala Milan in 2018 and was acclaimed as his magnum opus.
Though composed almost 20 years apart, both Kurtág’s Wind Quintet (1959) and 12 Microludes (1978) could pass off as works composed simultaneously. The close attention to detail as well as the portrayal of the Webernian aesthetic are two aspects which these pieces overlap and form a part of Kurtág’s uniquely intense yet reserved musical style.

Kurtág’s Wind Quintet, Op. 2 for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon was composed in 1959, at the age of 32. Having moved to Paris just two years before, Kurtág had effectively moved away from Hungary’s pro-Stalinist government and the control it had over music and the arts. With newfound freedom to absorb fresh external influences, the inquisitive composer lifted himself beyond the stifling environment of Hungary into vibrant Paris. Short, expressive and highly-concentrated musical motives in the quintet reveal his discovery of early Webern, whereas the motives’ rhythmic vivacity pays homage to Olivier Messiaen’s theatrical concept of rhythmic cells as “personnages”, something Kurtág absorbed from his analysis classes. Ultimately, this piece was avant-garde, yet it lay low – Kurtág had conceived a piece of music that was close enough to silence such that its lack of resonance allowed him to sit behind the work in the comforts of its seamless disguise. As opposed to Shostakovich who suffered at the hands of the Soviets due to his unfiltered expressionism, Kurtág’s response to oppression was expressed in a more subtle way. It showed who he really was – a silent introvert who wanted to remain unknown and go unnoticed.

The 12 Microludes for string quartet is a piece depicting musical extremity – each fragment of musical bursts reflecting either violence or stasis; complexity or simplicity. As a homage to fellow Hungarian composer Mihály András, the piece features Eastern European elements in the form of ostinato figurations, chorales and folk song-like melodies. Each movement is between 18 to 82 seconds in duration, and the brevity of movements can be likened to Webern’s Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9. However, Kurtág’s own musical voice is apparent in this piece, due to the visceral soundscape which is achieved when the nostalgic and memorable measures of Eastern European folk songs are as prominent as the intensely concentrated art music purity of Webern. It is this simple, melodious preciousness, injected in the Webernian soundscape of the aphoristic love for God and nature that make up the innate power of these tiny movements of Kurtág’s.

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