In reviewing (to the best of my ability) all of my experiences involving listening to the music of György Kurtág, I discovered that, until the beginning of this month, the largest number of performers that gathered to perform one of his pieces was four. Where concert performances were concerned, the number was three; but this past September I had the opportunity to listen to a Kurtág album entitled Complete String Quartets. My curiosity was thus piqued when ECM announced that, this coming Friday, ECM New Series would release a new album of that composer’s music entitled Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir. Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this three-CD collection; and, for those fascinated with Kurtág’s work, this is quite a find, even for those (like myself) skeptical about the release of “complete” albums by a composer who is still alive and, as far as we know, active.
The ensemble on this new album is Asko | Schönberg, the result of a merger in 2008 of two ensembles with a shared interest in “advanced modernism” that had previously performed and recorded together many times. The Asko Ensemble was formed in 1965 and never had a regular conductor. The Schönberg Ensemble was founded in 1974 by students and former students of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and all of my vinyl recordings of the group named Reinbert de Leeuw as the Music Director. He is the conductor on the Kurtág album, and the choir is the Netherlands Radio Choir.
It is important to note that, even when writing on an “ensemble” scale, Kurtág tended to prepare one-to-a-part scores. Consequently, the accompanying booklet singles out a generous number of soloists. On the vocal side these are soprano Natalia Zagorinskaya, mezzo Gerrie de Vries, tenor Yves Saelens, and bass Harry van der Kamp. In addition there are tracks that feature solo performances by cello (Jean-Guihen Queyras), guitar (Elliott Simpson), and piano (Tamara Stefanovich). In addition Csaba Király plays pianino and serves as speaker in “Samuel Beckett: What is the Word,” which has the rather lengthy subtitle “Samuel Beckett sends word through Ildikó Monyók in the translation of István Siklós.” Equally important is that the tracks for this collection have been arranged in the chronological ordering of the works’ respective composition.
Those familiar with Kurtág probably know him as a miniaturist. That makes the Beckett piece rather distinguished, since it lasts more than sixteen minutes. Furthermore, it is not the longest piece in the collection. “Colindă Baladă” runs about one minute longer. Completed in 2010, it is the penultimate composition in the collection. The last is the instrumental suite in four movements Bref messages, completed in 2011. However, if we are to go by the Wikipedia page of Kurtág’s compositions, he wrote a work for full orchestra (which probably involved string sections, rather than individual players) to honor Pierre Boulez’ 90th birthday. Indeed, this is not the only piece in the “Ensemble/orchestral” category that is not included on the album, suggesting that de Leeuw confined his attention only to one-to-a-part compositions.
What is most fascinating about the collection is the number of pieces that were composed for instruments “dispersed in space,” either individually or in groups. Such selections do not fare well under the limitations of recording technology. There have, of course, been listening environments in which the audience is surrounded by loudspeakers; but, at least currently, those environments have had to take a back seat in a culture that resorts to ear buds as all one needs for listening. Thus, at least where these particular compositions are concerned, the primary value is to introduce the attentive listener to the compositional devices that Kurtág has deployed in the hope that such a listener will eventually have the opportunity to experience the spatial qualities that the composer seems to have intended.
Fortunately, that is my only real quibble with this new release. Kurtág is as imaginative in working with diverse collections of instrumentalists and vocalists is he is when working on a chamber-music scale. In both cases he is primarily concerned with drawing our attention to sonorities that are practically at an atomic level. Because his pieces are brief, he tends to focus on only a few of those qualities in any individual compositional gesture. Thus, through a recording like this one, the attentive listener can begin to appreciate the vast scope of his creativity when working at such a microscopic level.
Nevertheless, this is not music to be “consumed in a single gulp,” so to speak. If Kurtág wants us to be attentive to an unfolding of individual moments, then we should not compromise their distinctive qualities. Better to listen to these pieces in “isolated individuality.” That way each one can work its own characteristic magic without confronting any risks of “crosstalk.”