The World of Kurtág


I have just embarked on my (scary) series of recitals combining the Bach suites with several solo pieces by Gyorgy Kurtág. The combination works remarkably well, I find – quite a tribute to the mastery of Kurtág. The idea of adding the 9 Kurtág pieces to these Bach programmes occurred to me when I realized that the dates on which I’d already agreed to play the Bach were all very close to Kurtág’s 90th birthday, which falls a week from today, February 19th. Perhaps on that day I shall post an article that I wrote for the programme of his birthday concert in Budapest about my years of working with this wonderful man. (Alas, I was not free to play in the concert itself – I am playing his music in England that day!) But for the moment, looking at the sheet music I have been using for these concerts, completely covered with my scribblings from my many lessons with Kurtág, I thought that I would share just a few of the images he has come up with in his attempts to get me to reproduce the sounds he has in his ear. I am so used to his unique voice, ruminating with a quiet desperation: ‘Er- er- how to tell you what I mean?’ (He himself says that ‘stuttering is my natural language!’) Every session with him produces a miraculous stream of similes and metaphors; perhaps the ones quoted below will give some small idea of his way of communicating the atmosphere of his unique musical world.


On vibrato in ‘Kroó Gyorgy in memoriam’: ‘It should be just a longing for the next note – like a butterfly on a leaf’.

On the articulation of the short notes in ‘Hommage à John Cage’: ‘ It can be like a little stone falling into the water; or like touching a hot iron’.

On the silences in ‘Schatten’: ‘The rests represent the motifs you do not hear’.

On the fast descending scales also in ‘Schatten’: ‘Shadows passing through the wall. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father – vanishing, imperceptible.’

Of the huge intervals in ‘Gérard de Nerval’: ‘A giant’s footsteps’.

The wide vibrato at the opening of ‘Jelek 1’: ‘It should sound like the neighing of a horse!’

The pp passage in Jelek 2 should be ‘like a snake approaching – menacing’.

Some of the raw passages of ‘Az hit…’ should be ‘like a dog biting the feet of God’; and feel like ‘intense alleluias – almost shouting’.

The pp bars in ‘Birthday greeting to Judit Scherter’ should ‘feel like the softest carpet – as if there were a curtain between the bow and the string’.

Finally, the pppp notes towards the end of ‘In memoriam Ferenc Wilheim’ should sound ‘like a bass recorder, with too much air being blown through it’.


These are of course just a handful of the gems which fill every session with him – and each player who has worked with him will have their own collection. There is also a stream of suggestions (or perhaps slightly more than mere ‘suggestions’!) about the rhythmic properties of each piece; he frequently points out the dance properties, sometimes requesting the feel of a sicilienne, for instance, or of a wild folk-dance (or alternatively, he may ask you to ‘yodel’). And underlying all his music is his strong sense of tonality – that which gives his music such inevitability. Working with him is demanding, yes – but it is exhilarating. One knows after a session with him that one has entered a very special, very real world; and one wants more and more of it.

But perhaps, moving beyond my second-hand reports, the best way to feel his unique magic is to watch him, with his wife and soul-partner Marta, in one of their rare performances together. A miracle!