At the beginning of this month, the Canadian ATMA Classique label released an album of the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág entitled Complete String Quartets. Kurtág turned 90 in February, and there does not seem to be any evidence that he is not still going strong. Furthermore Kurtág specializes in miniatures. Placed alongside some of this scores, the works of Anton Webern seem almost gargantuan. This explains why the headline for this article was qualified, since there is no reason to assume that Kurtág has given up on writing for string quartet, particularly when any act of composition can involve such minimal physical activity.
Because of the duration of Kurtág’s pieces, it should come as no surprise that this “complete” album consists of only a single CD. Indeed, the editor of the booklet seems to have gotten carried away with Kurtág’s reputation. There is a single track for a fifteen-movement piece, one of Kurtág’s many memorial compositions for a fellow Hungarian. The track listing gives the duration of this work as being a bit shy of three minutes! As impressive as this sounds, it was a misprint. Performance of all fifteen movements takes about twelve and one-half minutes, which is a bit more consistent with Kurtág’s style!
The performers on this new album are the members of Quatour Molinari, quartet in residence at the Conservatory of Music in Montreal. I first became aware of them when ATMA Classique released another “complete string quartets” album of another living composer, in this case Sofia Gubaidulina, in January of 2015. (This album was a bit more extensive, since it had two CDs!) Membership of Quatour Molinari has not changed from that time; and the players are still violinists Olga Ranzenhofer and Frédéric Bednarz, violist Frédéric Lambert, and cellist Pierre-Alain Bouvrette. Other adventurous modernists that have found a place in this ensemble’s repertoire are Alfred Schnittke and Canadian R. Murray Schafer.
Getting used to Kurtág’s miniaturist thinking may require some adjustment. Where his piano compositions are concerned, this tends not to be that difficult. Many of his pieces are playful and have been collected under a title that is the Hungarian word for “games.” Where the string quartet music is concerned, there is more of an element of seriousness, probably because so much of the content is memorial in nature. Fortunately, the album begins with his Opus 1, which amounts to a six-movement “abstract” composition. As the booklet notes by Ranzenhofer (translated into English by Sean McCutcheon) explain, Kurtág prepared himself to write his first original composition by copying out Webern’s works. As a result he began to appreciate what could be achieved by working with only a small number of notes without necessarily being bound by grammatical constraints such as those Arnold Schoenberg had developed for his twelve-tone system.
Once he had found his own way, composing was a bit like eating potato chips. It was almost as if he could not complete one piece without feeling the need to launch into another. He also found ways to sneak in appropriations from other sources, even on the small scale. (He calls his Opus 13, a set of twelve pieces collected as a single memorial, a group of “microludes.”) Thus, it is not surprising that his fifteen-movement memorial includes a quote from Webern, while another single-movement piece reflects on the Renaissance polyphony of Jacob Obrecht.
Another composer explicitly acknowledged by Kurtág is Olivier Messiaen. However, even before birdsong is explicitly acknowledged in the fifth of his Opus 44 Moments Musicaux pieces, it is easy to detect by the rhythms and phrasings of bird-calls, even if many of those birds are imaginary. While this is a useful “working metaphor,” my personal thoughts turn to the summer of 1968, when I found myself hunting for mushrooms as part of a seminar that John Cage had organized during his visit to the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was a dry time of year, and mushrooms were scarce. As a result, one of the things I learned was how any number of other natural phenomena could provide clues as to where mushrooms might be found. Listening to this quartet music is a bit like looking for such clues, even if the objective that those clues abet is less well-defined. In a way listening to the pieces on this album is a bit like thinking about how a walk in the woods can be more than just walking in the woods.