The Musikverein and the Konzerthaus, two of Vienna's -- and the music world's -- most hallowed venues, glowed when Kurtag's ethereal miniatures bloomed in these special spaces. In the New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote of the Kurtags' Konzerthaus' recital. He called their performance of Kurtag's arrangement of the opening movement of Bach's cantata "Gottes Zeit ist die Allerbeste Zeit" "one of the most beautiful things" he had ever heard. He wasn't alone. These walls have surely witnessed great Bach before. But that night I sensed his uncanny presence through a direct spiritual descendant.
Still -- or maybe because Kurtag's music proved so overpowering in Vienna -- I felt a strong urge to spend a day or two in Budapest, to mingle with Kurtag's ghosts. Kurtag's ghosts were the theme of a program in tribute to the composer by the quirkily adventurous Italian pianist Marino Formenti at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last spring. Those ghosts were musical, and they included the likes of Machaut, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Bartok, Janacek, Webern, Messiaen, Stockhausen and Boulez.
Kurtag is a peculiar, reclusive man, said to be difficult. He refuses interviews. But he is also impressively cosmopolitan. He speaks Romanian, Hungarian, German, French, Russian, English and Greek. His ghosts are, certainly, those above composers and many others, including Scarlatti, Stravinsky and John Cage. But they are writers too. Kurtag learned Russian to read Dostoevsky and to compose songs to texts by Russian writers. He is drawn to Samuel Beckett. In "... pas a pas -- nulle part ..." for baritone, string trio and percussion, impenetrable Beckett poems take on extraordinary new dimensions of impenetrability, making the ear stand at attention.
Kurtag was born in the Transylvanian town of Lugos, now part of Romania. He came to Budapest in 1945 hoping to study piano with Bartok. The famed composer, who had fled the Nazis and settled in New York during the war, was planning to return to Hungary. But he died that year. And Kurtag spent the next decade attempting to find his own voice.
He didn't find it in Budapest, which went from one totalitarian rule to another, as the Soviets replaced the Nazis. Though barely more than two hours by train from Vienna, the city was cut off artistically from the blossoming European avant-garde. Hungarian composers were expected to toe the line with Soviet-approved social realist music. In the early '50s, Kurtag wrote a "Korean" Cantata, in which he expressed solidarity to the Korean people in their battle with the U.S.
But after the failed popular revolution of 1956, Kurtag was able to leave the country and spend a year in Paris, where he studied music with Messiaen and Milhaud, worked with the psychologist Marianne Stein and fell under the spell of Beckett. All of this led to his thinking about music not as an additive process but as one of subtraction, and he began reducing his work to the bare, and then the barest, essentials.
Even a short stay in Budapest reveals just what an act of will that can be for a Hungarian artist. Although many years now since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Budapest still struggles with its Communist legacy. The 50th anniversary of the failed 1956 revolution, when for a brief moment before the Soviet tanks took over the streets it appeared that student-led demonstrations might liberalize the country, is commemorated everywhere. With a president once connected to Communists, the anniversary fostered last October the most dramatic demonstrations here in half a century.
Around the corner from the Liszt Academy is the former headquarters of the Soviet secret police. Its exterior is baroquely decorated with small portraits of Hungarians killed in the 1956 rebellion. In front of each are candles, relics, and fresh and decayed flowers. Nearby streets are dirty obstacle courses. Nearby shopkeepers are seriously unfriendly.
Gone his own way
WITH new concert halls and opera houses designed by Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog & de Meuron and other star architects popping up throughout Europe, the Palace of Arts, about two miles down the Danube from the center of Pest, is an unsettling return to stodgy Soviet architecture. At a concert in Bartok Hall, with unsubtle acoustics by Artec (the firm responsible for Costa Mesa's new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall), I heard an interminable 3 1/2 -hour recital by two unflappably humorless Hungarian pianists (Jeno Jando and Karoly Mocsari) who hammered out all 19 of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, removing the fun and charm from these wonderful show pieces.