The trademark of György Kurtág's music is its conciseness. Of the 28 tracks on Signs, Games and Messages, only a handful last more than two minutes, and the longest, lasting almost five, seems positively Brobdingnagian in this context. One of the factors contributing to the appeal of the album is the brevity of the pieces, all of which (with one exception) are scored for solo viola. Each movement takes a striking, attention-grabbing idea, plays with it very briefly and then moves on before it wears out its welcome. An entire album devoted to a solo orchestral instrument (except for some masterpieces like J.S. Bach's Cello Suites) can be daunting because listening to the sound of a single instrument for an hour can weary the ear, but Kurtág's writing is so skillful and idiomatic, his exploitation of varied timbres so inventive, and his ideas so engaging that listeners who enjoy contemporary chamber music aren't likely to experience aural fatigue.
This is the first recording of the complete set of Signs, Games and Messages, which is made up of 24 movements. (There is a recording of most but not all of the movements of a version of the piece for string trio, and Kurtág also wrote versions for violin, cello, and double bass.) The CD also includes four short independent works. Violist Maurizio Barbetti shows himself to be a virtuoso of the highest order in his gorgeous performance of this treacherously difficult music. No matter how far the composer pushes the boundaries of what is possible for a viola to play, Barbetti's technique is rock solid and his tone is warm and focused. He obviously understands and loves the music because even in its spikiest moments he invests it with direction and emotional meaning. Baritone Gianpiero Ruggeri demonstrates a comparable vocal mastery in the one movement in which he participates. The ambience is extremely reverberant, to the point that there is sometimes an echo. For this music, though, the cavernous acoustic does not seem inappropriate because the grandeur it imparts gives a gravity and heft to these aphoristic gestures played a single instrument and makes an unambiguous statement: the performing forces may be small and the music miniature, but the experience they offer is richly textured and large scale.