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Kurtag lifts the silence

The leading Hungarian composer makes every note count, with powerful results.

January 07, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Budapest, Hungary — SEX, in Budapest, requires a Z. And if you desire an espresso to accompany some of the world's plumpest, most seductive apple strudel, you will need two Zs plus an accent mark. Formidable to a foreigner, Hungarian is a language of consonant-plump words: hence, szex and eszpresszo.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Hungarian culture, and especially its music, can also display the quality of excessive addition, to say nothing of caffeinated energy and complicated eroticism. Liszt, the country's most celebrated composer, all but invented sex appeal at the keyboard, along with modern harmony, and he had, in his middle years, no problem with flashy excess. Bartok and Ligeti, also Hungarian inventors of musical styles and advancers of Europe's musical language, wrote works once thought scandalous (such as the former's prostitute-centered ballet, "The Miraculous Mandarin," and the latter's profane opera, "Le Grand Macabre").

But Gyorgy Kurtag, today's leading Hungarian composer, is a little different. His spirit is more difficult to locate amid the grim grime of Budapest's streets or the looming, flamboyant presence of Gothic public buildings that line the Danube and give the city a ghostly aura in a gloomy November fog and drizzle.

A paragon of purity, Kurtag has said, "I keep coming back to the realization that one note is almost enough." He has endured periods of composer-block silence when even a single note was too difficult to come up with. His "Kafka Fragments" -- a cycle of 40 bits of spiritually and sexually elusive but explosive Kafka-coded flotsam and jetsam for soprano and violin -- which will receive a rare performance this afternoon as part of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series at Zipper Concert Hall -- begins with the violinist playing only two notes, back and forth and, the composer instructs, "indifferently."

There is, however, no less indifferent music in all of Hungary or anywhere else for that matter. Kurtag culled the text from Kafka's diaries and letters to create a stumbling journey of the writer's gaunt, haunted soul. The violin's two notes represent "the march of the good." The soprano, who sings brilliant rings around her unwavering accompaniment, offers the dance of "the others." And the path followed for the next hour is "miserable life" enlivened: breath and suffocation, good and bad, heaven and hell, spirit and flesh, entwined.

The two notes of the violin symbolizing the duality of existence keep coming back. Coitus, Kafka wrote, is "punishment of the happiness of being together." That is the 22nd fragment of Kurtag's cycle -- its center. Two years ago, Peter Sellars staged the cycle for soprano Dawn Upshaw in Carnegie Hall as an unforgettable moment of psychically charged domesticity in the time of war. At Zipper the performers will be soprano Tony Arnold and violinist Movses Pogossian.

Kurtag turned 80 last year, and my visit to Budapest was to inhale a few lungfuls of his atmosphere, even though he doesn't live here any longer (having moved to Paris four years ago) and Hungary honors him uneasily.

In an interview for the Hungarian Quarterly three years ago, Andras Schiff, the celebrated Hungarian pianist who left Budapest years ago, mentions the jealous reaction by parts of the local intellectual community when Imre Kertesz, the luminous Hungarian writer, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. "In the case of Kurtag, Kertesz and myself," Schiff said, "it is not possible to dodge the issue of anti-Semitism."

Last February, the Liszt Academy, where Kurtag taught for many years, presented a four-day celebration for his birthday. The Budapest Spring Festival included a Kurtag evening. But since then, it appears to have been pretty much Kurtagian silence around here.

CDs of his music are more plentiful (and considerably cheaper) at Amoeba Music in Hollywood than in Budapest's largest record shops. Hungarian music is a regular part of the offerings at the new Palace of the Arts, a performing arts complex that includes two concert halls, a modern art museum and the National Theater. But I don't spot Kurtag's name in the thick booklet that lists the hundred or so concerts in its Bela Bartok Concert Hall and the smaller chamber music venue from July through the end of 2006.

Indeed, the place to find Kurtag in late November was nearby Vienna, where Wien Modern, the city's monthlong new music festival, paid tribute to his work. Pianists Maurizio Pollini and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Hagen Quartet, the Hungarian composer-conductor Peter Eotvos took part. Kurtag and his wife, Marta, gave a radiantly moving joint piano recital, playing excerpts from the "Jatekok" (Games) series, tiny pieces, many in memory or honor of friends.

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