Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 1 December 2013
Hero worship is usually a tawdry and self-indulgent affair, especially in the classical music world. Too often a performance by a respected musician, who hasn’t actually done much in the concert, will be greeted by effusive applause and standing ovations, more for who they are than what they have just done. This afternoon’s recital by György and Márta Kurtág was not like that. True, the ovations that followed their brief performance were effusive in the extreme, but in that frustratingly short half hour or so they were on the stage, they made abundantly clear why the status that the audience accorded them was fully justified.
The recital began with an excellent performance by violinist Hiromi Kikuchi of Kurtág’s Hipartita, one of those inscrutably aphoristic works that are the hallmark of his chamber music output. But after the interval, György and Márta played, and from then on, the fact that he’s written any work not for piano duet suddenly seemed profoundly irrelevant.
Both are now in their late 80s and as physically frail as that vintage suggests. They came onto the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall hand in hand, acknowledged the applause without ceremony and then proceeded to the piano, a curiously (mis)tuned upright as unassuming and modest as couple themselves. Their performance, and it’s a format they’ve followed for decades, consisted of movements from Játékok interspersed with Kurtág’s Bach arrangements. Given their age, I wasn’t expecting any technique to speak of, but actually both still have the control and touch this music requires. More significantly, though, they have identical technique, and every other aspect of their musicianship, and even demeanour, was just as closely matched. The movements were divided roughly evenly between solos by one or other and duets. The games of Játékok display the tangential and introverted humour that’s typical of Hungarian culture, the humour of Ligeti’s Carroll settings, and of Háry János. Hand-crossings tie the two performers closely together, both physically and musically. Typically, Márta, playing primo, will take both the treble and the bass, while György will lean over to add the inner textures, often with his own hands crossed too.
The most moving part of this performance though, were the solo movements. Whenever one of the couple is playing alone, the other will stand closely to one side, listening intently and turning pages as required: both performers play as active a part in the solos as the duets. In one movement, otherwise performed solely by Márta, György gently leaned forward from the left of piano and added the final chord, a pp cluster at the very bottom of the keyboard. And the ascetic textures of Kurtág’s works are skilfully broken up by his Bach settings – suddenly the texture clears and the translucent harmonies of a chorale prelude, as elegantly performed as we could wish, bring calm and order to the composer’s overactive imagination
Were it not for the generosity of spirit, expressed both in the Kurtágs’ composure and in their music, a sense of voyeurism might creep in, such is the intimacy and scale of this music. The couple have been making music like this for over 60 years, and listening to them, the imagination wanders. It is easy to visualise the pair at an upright piano like this one in their Budapest flat, calmly intoning Bach’s clear and lucid counterpoint as, outside the window, the Soviets push back the Nazis, or the 1956 uprising flares, or the 1989 Revolution...
The couple seemed embarrassed by the scale of the applause, but their modesty was clearly genuine. After the recital, György was presented the RPS medal. As John Gilhooly read the citation from the hastily positioned podium, Kurtág stood behind, looking curiously over his shoulder at the text as if wondering what all the fuss was about. Among the many qualities the RPS specified in their encomium was the emotional honesty of Kurtág’s music, and that was the overriding impression of this performance. Everything about the couple was genuine, their modesty, their passion for music, the humour of Kurtág’s own compositions and the deep communion with Bach.
When Gilhooly presented Kurtág with the award, he expressed best wishes for the years to come. That resonated. Clearly, past achievements were being celebrated here, but there was nothing belated or triumphalist about the performance. It was about the music, and it was about now. So, best wishes indeed, György and Márta Kurtág, for the years ahead, and I look forward with much anticipation to your next appearance on the London stage.