György Kurtág

György Kurtág: Játékok; Szálkák; Grabstein für Stephan

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This CD of music by György Kurtág includes two chamber works written in the mid-'70s and an orchestra piece from 1989. The composition of Játékok (Games), a series of pieces for solo piano or piano four-hands, has been an ongoing endeavor for the composer that he predicts will continue for the rest of his life, and it represents a kind of musical diary. Most of the movements are extremely brief; about half of the 26 represented here last less than a minute. The selections include movements for four hands performed by the composer and his wife Márta. The miniatures are whimsically diverse, and it's difficult to discern a particular rationale for playing these particular selections as a set, except for the fact that they do make for an odd, but musically satisfying collection. Their extreme economy perfectly illustrates Kurtág's search for "the maximum possible density of expression by means of the minimum possible sound." Szálkák -- written for cimbalom, the Hungarian ancestor of the American hammered dulcimer, but with a rougher, more brittle sound than its pure-toned New World relation -- is in a single movement, but its brief clusters of gestures create the kind of disjuncture Kurtág uses in Játékok. Grabstein für Stephan, for guitar and instrumental groups, is a stunningly effective demonstration of the composer's austere aesthetic. The guitar plays irregularly, repeated ascending arpeggios, over which the orchestra weaves a darkly mysterious filigree of murmurings and sighs that only occasionally erupt into a dramatic expression of grief. The NDR Sinfonieorchester, conducted by Zoltán Pesko, and guitarist Elena Càsoli play with just the right combination of expressivity and restraint for this haunting and enigmatic piece. There is a very low-level tape hiss throughout the recording. In the piano pieces, page turns and bench-shifting noises are audible, which may or may not be a problem for listeners depending on their preference for sound that is absolutely clean, or for a more realistic record of the performing experience that captures the sonic peripherals.

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