Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Family Affair

Márta and György Kurtág made their New York debut at Zankel Hall Sunday night, with a performance of four-hand piano music that has become something of a legend in music circles. I wasn't surprised to see the hall full, and so full of musicians—composers and performers—some who had traveled long distances especially for this performance. At intermission, friends and colleagues shared stories of Kurtág's famously detailed chamber music coachings and his sophisticated fixation on the production of musical sound.

Yet, the touching sight of the 82-year-old modernist master and his wife seated on an extra-wide piano bench in front of an upright piano (when was the last time an upright was heard in performance at Carnegie Hall?) belied the challenging intensity and intellectualism that characterize his music. The last music of Kurtág I heard was a performance of his bracing masterpiece, Kafka Fragments, so the Biedermeier aspect of a family gathered around an upright piano (literally around in this case, as Gÿorgy Kurtág, Jr. was seated behind the instrument mixing the amplified sound) was poignant and not a little surprising. The theatricality of the scene—a new, polished-ebony upright piano with its two lids raised on either side (like small vestigial wings) flanked by tall cylindrical speakers of a distinctly sci-fi hi-fi sort connected by cords and microphones—made me think of Virgil Fox's famous line (oft-quoted by my dear friend, Albert Fuller), "Honey, they see you before they hear you." But what did this array of high-end electronics and dowdy piano portend?

The piano's soft pedal was engaged for the entire performance, so the supple, electronic sound manipulation produced a muted hush that mirrored the intimacy of the familial scene on stage. The veiled, slightly diffuse sound drew the listener near, yet the quiet amplification also acted as a barrier, an element of remove, even artifice, separating performer and audience. It created a sonic vitrine containing lovely musical curiosities in miniature. This scene was enhanced by the innate theatricality of some of Kurtág's transcriptions. Martá, seated on the right, spread her arms wide to simultaneously play notes in the extreme bass and and treble, while her husband toiled in the mid-range, their arms entwined in a kind of lovingly inefficient distribution of labor that makes certain domestic chores so pleasant to share.

The music itself, selection from Játékok by Kurtág for both performers or one, and four-hand transcriptions of music by Bartók and Bach, flowed with little break and no applause (until the standing ovation rewarded with two additional Bach encores) through a variety of affects and images, so engaging, so inventive, we would have gladly listened all night. The warm waves of applause at the end seemed oddly anonymous after the intensely personal music and music-making we'd just experienced. Instead, it felt as though we each should exchange kisses, shake hands, and thank our hosts for sharing such a wonderful evening.

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