Reviews resurrected: György and Márta Kurtág and Hiromi Kikuchi, Wigmore Hall, 2006

Resurrected because this concert is essentially being reprised on 1 December as part of the Southbank Centre’s TRIN-fest. Here’s what I wrote back in 2006 when the Kurtág piano duo and violinist Hiromi Kikuchi came to the Wigmore Hall.

Originally published in New Notes, the now-defunct magazine of the now-defunct SPNM.

One behind-the-scenes tidbit: I’d spent the few days before this concert in New York, and had stepped off a red-eye flight back only that morning. So the whole performance was experienced through the haze of jet-lag and a lot of caffeine.

Kurtág 80th Birthday Celebration
Wigmore Hall, 9th November 2006

György Kurtág (pianino), Márta Kurtág (pianino), Hiromi Kikuchi (violin)

György Kurtág: Hipartita, Játékok

The György and Márta Kurtág piano duet is one of the great shows in contemporary music and, as expected, attracted a capacity audience to the Wigmore Hall. Their chosen programme – selected from the composer’s 8-volume Játékok series for piano and Transcriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach – has remained relatively consistent for more than 20 years. However, tonight we were treated to a different cross section of works from the set. Several favourites – ‘Knots’, ‘Study to “Hölderlin”’, Dirge – remained, but there were also surprises. Unusually there were none of the ‘Flower’ pieces that form a backbone to the series, and there was the inclusion of one non-Kurtág work, Bartók’s ‘Canon at the lower fifth’ from Mikrokosmos volume 1.

As a duet the couple are unique performers. Kurtág’s music of delicate gestures seems perfectly matched to husband and wife, full as it is with private jokes, recollections and shared experience, a near dance of crossing limbs and touching hands. At one point in the choreographed performance the composer stands like a stern instructor behind his wife’s shoulder as she performs the sole Játék dedicated to her; this is a quintessential Kurtág moment, taut, tender, and not a little oppressive. A parallel might be made with Milan Kundera, whose erotic, intimate writing is as dark as it is light. Yet for all the theatre Kurtág’s genius is to make it all about the music and nothing more.

The first piece on the programme, Hipartita for violin solo, given a stunning UK première by its dedicatee Hiromi Kikuchi, revealed a different side of Kurtág’s art. Unmistakable in its foreign-familiar harmonic and melodic language it hinted at a new-found easiness of style. Completed in 2004, Hipartita is one of the composer’s most unified pieces, maintaining a notable consistency of character in contrast to his earlier multi-partite works; this is not to say that his expressive range is diminished, however. Several of the nine movements were distinguished by well-balanced, long-breathed phrases suggesting that Kurtág is, in his later years, fully embracing the lyricism that he previously allowed to dwell only at the edges of his music.


Reviews resurrected: EXAUDI at the Warehouse, October 2009

Resurrected because it features my first encounter with a couple of pieces on EXAUDI’s forthcoming disc for HCR – Stephen Chase’s Jandl Songs, and Claudia Molitor’s lorem ipsum. Not sure why I didn’t mention the pieces by either Gwyn Pritchard or Linda Catlin Smith at the time, and now of course I can’t remember anything about them.

Originally published on Musical Pointers.

Don’t forget the launch concert and party for EXAUDI’s CD, this Saturday, 4th May, at the Only Connect Theatre, Kings Cross.


EXAUDI, dir. James Weeks

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmer
James Weeks: from Mala Punica
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour
Claudia Molitor: lorem ipsum

The Warehouse, London, 29 October 2009

Several of the pieces in this miscellany of special commissions and ‘must do’ rarities came across as surprisingly honest to certain choral traditions. No doubt that perception is a product of my upbringing, but that tradition and the resulting pieces sound interestingly and pleasingly English to me, right down to the strings of finger pops in Molitor’s lorem ipsum, which recalled peals of change-ringing bells. But then EXAUDI and most of the composers they performed are products of similar upbringings to mine, so perhaps it’s silly to fret over context vs content and acknowledge things for how they appeared.

The obvious exception was Agrimbau, and it’s not entirely unrelated that I found his the least satisfying piece of the evening. Instead of establishing for itself a position in critical relation to tradition it preferred to dwell overlong on a series of new music tricks and treats. The dense accompanying notes didn’t help much – the music itself didn’t seem correspondingly dense. On the contrary. Perhaps the philosophical underpinnings would reveal themselves on subsequent hearings. Another puzzle was the relationship between score (described as highly graphic, and featuring emoticons) and the sounding result (which was precisely ordered and didn’t betray any aleatoric origins). Maybe EXAUDI had undertaken a substantial act of David Tudorism in translating the graphics to conventional notation, but then, one has to ask, why the graphics in the first place? All in all, a baffling piece.

The rest were much lighter in tone. The middle movement of Hoh’s mantra:imagine was a Zen-like setting of ‘Pepsi Cola’, but it was the first movement that especially struck me, a series of dense harmonic textures, interrupted by chunks of silence, rather like Ligeti cut into large panels and pegged out on a line.

Ligeti was also recalled inthe group’s director James Weeks’s three pieces from his Mala punica. Each was constructed around canonic procedures that derived great complexity from simple materials. The result was simultaneously airier than Ligeti, but more robust and unsettling. There was a sort of dark madrigalian quality to the individual part writing too, which suggested a greater interest in the Latin texts than Ligeti ever showed in his Requiem or Lux aeterna.

The two stand-out pieces for me were those by Chase and Priestley. Chase’s six Jandl Songs belong to an in-progress series of settings of the avant-garde Austrian poet. The texts themselves are curious, experimental verses, the flavour of which Chase captured perfectly in his clean, but deceptively clever settings. It was impossible to pin down why they worked so well – an explanation sat just out of view – but work they did, extremely well.

Priestley’s Unloose to the Murmer, a sort of deconstruction of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by way of Cageian Musicircus ritual, may have had loftier ambitions – and it didn’t quite reach them as satisfyingly as Chase’s songs – but it was nevertheless a successful and revealing piece. The Orfeo extracts were chopped and tossed together to form a series of choral refrains, which each degraded in turn into aleatoric passages governed by giant sheets of manuscript covered with transparencies, on which were graphic notations for more indeterminate interpretation. The performers were distributed about the space, with a sheet each. After each refrain they removed a transparency each and the cycle began again until all the transparencies were gone, leaving a slow, underlying cantus firmus. The graphic transparencies seemed to suggest movement as well as sound, so the indeterminate sections became miniature theatre pieces. It is more complicated to describe than it was to experience: the effect was actually quite direct, yet with an element of mystery, exactly like Cage. I thought Monteverdi was a good choice for such a treatment: his sectional constructions, melodic simplicity and harmonic and rhythmic robustness mean that he can be bashed around quite a lot without losing his fundamental identity. These are qualities shared, incidentally, by many British composers you might hear at the Warehouse, for whom questions of material and its malleability are central to their aesthetic – Molitor and Weeks, in different ways, might be two more. Priestley, on this evidence, sounds like she shares this interest, and I suspect she will go far with it.

Reviews resurrected: Roland Dahinden: flying white (mode)

First of an occasional series of posts resurrecting reviews of mine that were originally published in print, but have long been inaccessible.

This one appeared in the now-defunct New Notes, in November 2007.

Roland Dahinden: flying white
Klangforum Wien String Quartet
mode 175


‘Monochromatic’ is the sort of word one might frequently encounter in relation to Dahinden’s music, but it might also mislead. Musically, colourlessness suggests a featureless music that is simple to apprehend and unrewarding to return to, superficial and dreary as a whitewashed wall. But this hardly describes the four quartets recorded here, which are monochromatic in the way that all the leaves in a forest are. To compare either to a flat colourless surface is to ignore any number of other possible and imaginary dimensions. It doesn’t take much listening to realise that there is almost too much to take in, not only in one go, but also in many hearings.

Visual comparisons are easy to make, and Dahinden himself is interested in music’s intersection with the visual arts. But it’s equally easy to overlook the real, musical qualities given to us in favour of compromised metaphors. Because the least interesting aspect of Dahinden’s music is how it might recall Rauschenberg’s White Paintings when, in fact, it explores dimensions – across time, into sound, up and down register – uniquely available to it.

All four quartets are even in dynamic (quiet) and tempo (slow), and unfold a series of short gestures, related to one another and separated by silences; one thinks of late Cage and Feldman, possibly Nono. The strict compression of certain musical parameters forces attention elsewhere – primarily pitch and timbre – but even here Dahinden has carefully limited his options (the most immediately apparent difference between the quartets is the different pitch gamuts they employ). Within this tight envelope remains a range of possibilities regarding the disposition of notes in time, register and across the harmonic spectrum. What emerges is a search for the most brittle sounds; a tiny, imaginary realm between pitch, harmony and noise that deserves the evocative titles Dahinden gives his pieces. Attaching programmes to such music may be a fool’s game, but with familiarity one hears the different moods of each piece – mond see as slow and luminous, poids de l’ombre as intense and nervous – and can create aural–textual–visual connections of one’s own. Sensibly, Dahinden leaves it at that and lets the sounds alone speak for themselves.

Tracks: Roland Dahinden: String Quartet No.2 ‘mind rock’, String Quartet No.4 ‘flying white’, String Quartet No.5 ‘poids de l’ombre’, String Quartet No.3 ‘mond see’